In marked contrast to the excessive flamboyance of Cleveland's collages stand the somber, minimal Portraits by the Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, whose recent paintings might easily be mistaken for dark, monochromic abstractions. An eclectic painter who works in a variety of styles because "life is too varied to be controlled under one approach", Helnwein also has established himself as a leading journalistic photographer, having produced covers for such magazines as "Rolling Stone" and "Time".
His dual career parhs have essentialy merged in the series "Fire", where each painting is a dark blue field within which is contained a barely discernible portrait of a famous countercultural rebel.
Helnwein's subjects are culled from the world of politics (Angela Davis, Che Guevara, Malcolm X), sports (Muhammad Ali), literature (Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud) and film (Marlon Brando, Bruce Lee), but the majority are from the arena of popular music (Miles Davis, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Don van Fleet, Sid Vicious and Frank Zappa).
The portraits of Hendrix, Joplin, and Lennon (plates 65 - 67) are particularly stirring because their ghostlike treatment translates as a poetic and humble tribute to major creative forces whose lives were tragically cut short.
As exemplified by the Paintings of Helnwein, the purpose of a contemporary rock and roll portrait may extend well beyond biographical signification to stimulating reflection upon larger issues of social or political consequence.
In the art of Jeff Koons, Jerry Kearns, and Leonard Mainor, for example, such images have been utilized to comment on the problematic topics of art- world economics, the downside of fame, and racial inequity.
David s. Ruben