Helen C. Frederick, CAUTION: Appearance (Dis)appearance

By Robin Rice, Philadelphia City Paper, April 12-19, 1996

Like Peter Goins’ photographic record of nuclear test sites, Helen Frederick’s CAUTION is a reminder tat the earthly promise of a nuclear bomb is too close to forever. In an interview with Cynthia Wayne, Frederick describes the bomb as “the major icon for my generation.” She continues, “It left an impact on my life but most significantly it permanently changed world ecology.”

The bomb and related ecological threats were the theme of Frederick’s installation recently presented at Laurie Wagman Hall. The small gallery was barely able to contain all of Frederick’s work (first shown at the Emerson gallery in McLean, VA). Conceived last year on the 50th anniversary of the first atomic explosion, CAUTION includes more pieces, which may be considered separately, in clusters, or comprehensively in the episodic organization chosen for Wagman Hall. The flexible sequential organization, as well as the predominance of work on paper, reflects Frederick’s long-term involvement with the book form.

CAUTION reminded me of Mimi Smith’s intensely personal response to the Three Mile Island accident. The chilling use of language, plastics and other crude household materials is reminiscent of some of Mimi’s strategies. And like Smith, Frederick awakens anxieties that have slipped beneath the surface of consciousness. These days, people don’t seem to worry about the bomb. The haves, have-nots, and nuclear wannabes don’t get much press. Do we imagine that political shifts in Eastern Europe have defused the threat—in spite of the small ruthless nations who now have nuclear capability? Or are we fatalistically focusing on the superficially entertaining antics of Newt and Bob and Pat?

Throughout the installation, Frederick layers images derived from many traditions, images of nature (particularly herons), grids and other geometries. Yellow Plastic tape printed with the word “CAUTION” marks territories. The magical Hebrew word “ABRACADABRA” is presented in its medieval triangular format, echoing the black on yellow triangles of civil defense signs. Throughout there’s an almost symphonic development of motifs. The word “link” appears in several contexts and literally in chains to suggest the inter-relatedness of all things, a truth that is both poetic and ominous. Frederick has usually worked in handmade media, especially prints and paper. She’s now embraced technology in the form of video and digitized prints. Nine digitized prints of a great blue heron symbolize rebirth and, perhaps, a hope to move into the future in collaboration with technology—possibly not the artist’s first choice, but certainly the only one that is viable.