“Everything that passes me I can see only a little of, but I am always looking. And I see an awful lot sometimes.”

Willem de Kooning

Jaap Eduard Helder’s art has an urgency fitting for the times in which we live.

Jaap is an abstract artist—which is not to say his work is divorced from the natural world. His paintings, alive with gesture and energy, draw from the everyday.

“I am always noticing things, and they come into my paintings—the eroded character of a peeling wall; the color of the sky. They’re like visual fragments making their way into the work. I don’t put them there consciously, but they appear,” says the artist.

His approach to painting is intuitive. After laying down a ground of black gesso on a wood panel, he begins adding color, deploying a number of tools (paint brushes, palette knives, bristled brush cleaners, sandpaper) to place and remove acrylic paint. His process is similar to an artist such as Jackson Pollock, who described his relationship to a work-in-progress exactly as Jaap might: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. I have no fear of making changes or destroying the image, because the painting has a life of its own.”

And so with Jaap, each painting becoming a kind of conversation with forces beyond easy comprehension—a dance with the mysterious on just the other side of daily sights.    

He puts it more simply: “It’s a lot of fun, these paintings.”

As an abstract artist, Jaap recognizes not everyone can relate to his work.

“A lot of people, they walk by this stuff and they see nothing,” he observes. “For me, I call them stories without words. There’s definitely a narrative, it’s just not linear.”

And so with Limit, a work he made as the world shut down and shrunk into itself with the onslaught of COVID-19.

What do we see in Limit?

A jumble of self-contained quasi-geometric forms—some rectangular, others more irregularly shaped—each textured in a patina of wear and tear; a riot of scrambled paint right in the middle, as if the ochre beneath is caught in collision with the darker forms above—a micro-explosion moment; white voids bounded-off in a painted world of containment all around. In the upper left corner, a sky-blue passage jumps, its hue brightened by contrast with the pentimento of orange beneath and patch of honeyed darkness to its right—this, a lighted cerulean passage lending itself to be perceived as an expression of hope in a world otherwise crashing in on itself; a promised dawn in a time of pandemic limits.

That, at least, is one read—one the artist is likely to accept; he welcomes the proliferation of meanings as people engage with his work.

“Everybody will see what they see, and that’s good,” he says.

Jaap is intentional in choosing his works’ titles: there is no accident to Limit being called Limit. Titling, for him, is an opportunity to honor and illuminate something of what he has expressed or found in making his art, while at the same time not over-prescribing how the work ought to be interpreted by others.

For Jaap, a painting is successfully complete not once a narrow and specific narrative intent is met, but rather once he is at the point of assessing the painting needs nothing more added or subtracted—when the painting has wholly revealed something true and real, even as meaning remains ambiguous.

Noted British abstractionist Howard Hodgkin, another artist with whom Jaap shares affinity, once observed, “When I finish a painting, it usually looks as surprising for me as for anyone else.” It is that surprise—the revelatory moment of discovery—that is the exciting part for Jaap and artists like him. It is a faith in and wonder at unearthing a larger something through the act of painting that propels him to his studio each day.

And for Jaap, it is urgent.

Four years ago, the artist faced a major health concern. “All of a sudden the fragility of life was right there,” he comments. “After that I developed more gratitude and wonder for the world we live in.”

“I have so much joy in my painting,” he adds. “After a serious issue, you appreciate life so much more.”

While Limit might suggest its own range of narrative interpretation, Jaap’s art as a whole since his medical crisis implies another, namely: life is short and full of wonder. His entire project as an artist is an ongoing celebration of the miracle of here and now—one long mighty cry of: “look at this!”

A visual hallelujah amid the hardship and transience of it all.

Born in the Netherlands, Jaap Eduard Helder lives and works in Maine. More of his art can be seen at his website, and his work is on view at Studio 53 Fine Art Gallery in Boothbay Harbor through August 3, 2020.