Cell Series: Helen Altman

Cell Series: Helen Altman

An acclaimed exhibition series, the Cell Series presents living artists and their work. It offers a rare opportunity to encounter work that is attempting to interpret and translate the world we universally experience in unique and surprising ways. The founders of the OJAC were passionate about supporting and showing living artists and their work - the museum continues this important mission with the Cell Series. 


Helen Altman’s work centers around common materials, objects, and images of animals and nature. The objects she utilizes in her work often derive from the flawed or discarded. Altman then makes alterations to these objects elevating them into the realm of “art,” thereby forcing interpretation of her choices and manipulations. Handmade moving blankets embellished with animal imagery represent change and impermanence along with insulation and protection. Drawings of animals burned into paper using a small propane torch suggest the fragility of animals and nature. Domestic items like a continuous “weeping” iron among a large pile of men’s shirts references individuals trapped in pre-defined roles. 

Her choices in material and imagery are broad; their humor and absurdity lead to deeper interpretations associated with loneliness and isolation among overcrowding, separation, and the loss of individuality and identity. 

For the OJAC’s Cell Series exhibition, Altman will include never before seen works from her household “habitat” collection—common objects that started out as personal collection objects of the artist. The installation will also include her iconic “altered appliances,” woven wire birds, and a series of seed and spice skulls. 

sticks and stones 3, 2018 cropped.jpg

HELEN ALTMAN, Sticks and Stones 3, 2018, acrylic on vintage slate chalkboard, cast plaster, & laser print, 22.5’ x 32.5 x 2" Photo by Julie Thibodeaux. 

Helen Altman was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas. She earned her BFA in 1981 and her MA in 1986, both at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, followed by her MFA in 1989, from the University of North Texas, Denton. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont; the Dallas Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Sarah Moody Gallery of Art, the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. She has participated in numerous museum exhibitions including solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; the Glassell School of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Grace Museum, Abilene. Selected group exhibitions include the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the Old Jail Art Center, Albany; the Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, Dallas; and the Chelsea Art Museum, New York. 


The 2018 Cell Series is sponsored in part by Susie & Joe Clack, Amy & Patrick Kelly, Gene & Marsha Gray, Sally & Robert Porter and generously supported by the McGinnis Family Fund of Communities Foundation of Texas. 

Two Worlds: The Reality of Abstraction

Two Worlds: The Reality of Abstraction

Curated by Patrick Kelly.

Two Worlds considers the a loaned work by American artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979) titled Untitled (Subway Station), 1945, and selections from the Old Jail Art Center’s permanent collection as the artists explore the balance between depicting reality and investigating non-objective creations through abstraction. Within the permanent collection selections to be included are works by mid-twentieth century Texas artists known as the Fort Worth Circle. 

At the same time Lewis was transitioning from Social Realism to abstraction in the 1940s Harlem New York, the Fort Worth Circle artists were also investigating the possibilities of abstraction. During this time, Lewis was abandoning realism as a means of expression due to his personal recognition of its ineffectiveness for social change. Instead he elected to create works that were “inherently aesthetic” in nature. Similarly, the Fort Worth Circle artists were embracing European modernism, rejecting (eschewing) the prevalent and popular Texas Regionalism and “bluebonnet school.” 

Lewis utilized devices of Abstract Expressionism to develop his personal visual language. Calligraphic line work along with fluid and expressive lines and shapes dominated his dynamic works. For the Fort Worth Circle artists, each developed their own unique style as the assimilated ideas and devices through their observation of Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism, and most other early twentieth century art movements. Though many of the artists in Two Worlds investigate the realm of pure abstraction, remnants of recognizable imagery or narrative is never renounced or abandoned. 

 Image: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Exhibition,  Procession : The Art of Norman Lewis. 

Image: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Exhibition, Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis. 

Lewis and the Fort Worth Circle artists shared different challenges in their careers. As an African-American artist, Lewis participated in many exhibitions and discussions in New York related to early abstraction yet he was excluded from many important writings or narratives related to the early periods associated with abstraction, specifically Abstract Expressionism. For the Fort Worth Circle artists, modernism was new to a conservative and culturally isolated part of the United States. Lewis augmented his income by driving a cab and teaching art at local schools in Harlem and New York. With very few collectors of early Texas Modernism the majority of Fort Worth Circle artists taught art or theatre, painted portraits, or were employed as draftsmen during the war years.

For all of the artists of Two Worlds, often the subject of a work is used as a vehicle to explore the language of abstraction, or abstract devices are used to emphasize something within a narrative or scene. Shape and form become gestural strokes while at the same time a stroke can reinforce a mood or feeling reinforcing what an artist is striving to convey. Works within this exhibition illustrate this approach as the artists teeter back-and-forth from abstracting subjects to the realm of non-objective abstraction. Often the works exist in both the worlds of concrete depiction and ethereal abstraction.


 NORMAN LEWIS,   Untitled (Subway Station) ,  c. 1945, oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 36 in. On loan from Art Bridges. LX.083. 

NORMAN LEWIS, Untitled (Subway Station), c. 1945, oil and sand on canvas, 24 x 36 in. On loan from Art Bridges. LX.083. 

Two Worlds is generously supported by the Art Bridges Foundation, Marcia Jacobs in memory of Chuck Jacobs, Pati & K.C. Jones, John & Sharon Matthews, Lynne & Cliff Teinert and Pam & Bob Tidwell.