Adam Helms merges art with psychology

Explore the notions behind his Amsterdam exhibition.

Swamp Thing by Adam Helms

Grimm Gallery has just opened the doors to its newest exhibit by Adam HelmsHauntology (not really now not any more). In his second solo exhibition at the Amsterdam venue, the American artist provides serious food for thought with work that bridges the gap between psychology and art—leaving you with a sense of eerie familiarity. Chatting to Glamcult, Helms questions the Uncanny, lost futures and reference cultures. “Can anything be original anymore?”

Where was idea behind the title of your exhibition, Hauntology (not really now not any more), born?

It is sort of a two-fold reference; the first part (Hauntology) is from a book by one of my favourite writers named Mark Fisher, he’s a theorist. The book is called Ghosts Of My Life (2014) and it’s about Hauntology, depression and lost futures—it really deals with the UK music scene and he talks about the conservatism of music at the moment. Reading that book put this splinter in my brain that all new music references other music and sounds like something else. What is new? Can anything be original anymore? It’s focused around that idea of reference cultures and lost futures.

The second part of the title is from a book from the 70s by another British writer called Alan Garner. It’s a science fiction book and it roughly deals with the idea of time and human history. When he thought of writing the book, he saw some graffiti written on a bridge that read ‘not really now not anymore’ and he knew that would be the final line of the novel. This part of this title, to me, speaks to this moment—what does now even mean? Is it the present, the past, does it mean there is not a future? It ran as this poetry that happened to sort of fit.

What is it about exploring the notion of the heroic versus the anti-heroic—as you do in Hauntology: Swamp Thing (Dante and Beatrice) (2014) and Hauntology: Silver Surfer (Dante and Beatrice) (2014)—that you find so interesting? Could you elaborate further on the context of these pieces?

The Swamp Thing is a comic that I read a lot when I was younger—it was really morose and eerie and strange. It wasn’t just about who is your super hero, it wasn’t that simple; it was more psychological to me. That particular cover looks really similar to the Silver Surfer front cover; they are both carrying this female figure. To me it was just this idea of reproducing these pop covers—this bizarre subject matter—because of the idea of the heroic and the anti-heroic that is shown a bit more in Swamp Thing.

Silver Surfer by Adam Helms

Silver Surfer by Adam Helms

What aspects of psychology go hand in hand with art, in your opinion?

That’s a big question! I think an artist’s work is in some way, a representation of an ideology and a worldview. There is something about images and particular artists work at times, if executed correctly, that does speak to particular psychological connections. For me, I’m just interested in archetypes, postures and male figures, and how these things have psychological elements.

What drives the visual aspect of your work? How do you form concepts into visual matter?

It’s just the recipe; the mechanics of how certain things get made in terms of images. It’s hard to say, sometimes it is completely intuitive.

Your work seems very conceptually driven, how important is the aesthetic aspect of art to you?

The visual part is always most important. I could talk endlessly about what my intentions are or what drove me to make a certain thing, but they have to stand on their own. They have to have some kind of impact on their own, like an artefact. To me, the drawings I did of the skull are almost imaginary; those skulls are these images that will just be somewhere in the future. They have to have this way to exist over time, just sit there and have some kind of authority or agency as an object. There are times where I have feel like I have failed because the intention outweighed what it looked like in the end, and vice versa.

Could you talk about the Freudian notion of the ‘Uncanny’ and how this incorporated into your work?

Mike Kelly (one of my favourite artists) curated a really famous show in the late 80s/90s about the Uncanny. It is something that just has this very strange, psychological after effect on the viewer—it’s just something that sticks with you and feels like it’s familiar, but at the same time it’s oddly unknown. It’s not that I set out to make Uncanny things, but sometimes it can have that effect in me then, you know there is something there.


With this in mind, what sort of response do you hope to receive from your audience? Are you hoping to provoke an uneasy familiarization between the viewer and your artwork?

I can’t control that. My intention might be one thing and then who knows what it is the eye of the beholder will see. It just has this voice that echoes within my self, it just rings as something that motivates me and I like the idea when I read things contextualized as Uncanny, it fascinates me.

Some of your pieces are very dark with big black areas; others are very colourful and busy. What is the idea behind this contrast?

Those were made at a different time. I just didn’t think that some of the images I was drawn to needed to be drawn, I thought it would be interesting for them to be mechanically reproduced. Whereas with the skulls, that was all about being hand-made and the almost primitive way of painting. I wanted these big areas of dark space so the paper could rip, I wanted there to be a stronger sense between emptiness and subject.

Both theories explored in your work—the Sublime and the Uncanny—address issues of fear and uneasiness. What is it about these emotions and theories that attract you to explore them further through the medium of art?

The Sublime is this almost Utopian end point, to me it can be subversive. Something can represent the Sublime but also the uncanny at the same time. To me the Uncanny is usually something that is hard to define—more mysterious—whereas the Sublime can be simpler things like fields of colour or movement. Then if those things can exist simultaneously on the surface of artwork, that’s a really interesting tension.


11 March until 15 April

Keizersgracht 241, 


Words by Lottie Hodson

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