Work of Art: Rabble
Ralph Helmick, Stuart Schechter
born 1952 and 1958
Mechanized Mylar butterflies suspended from stainless-steel cables installed in ceiling and anchored by pewter weights with contrails of fabric flowers
Approx. 10 x 15 x 44 ft. (3.05 x 4.57 x 13.41 m.)
Commissioned by the North Carolina Museum of Art with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)
© 2012 Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter

Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter make ceiling-hung sculpture they describe as three-dimensional pointillism. Each of their works consists of thousands of discrete, suspended elements that coalesce into one large composite form. This team, formed in the early 1990s, joins the talents of a sculptor and art instructor (Helmick) with those of a portrait painter, sculptor, and mechanical engineer who has worked with NASA (Schechter).

In this work, about 1,200 subtly moving butterflies are massed together in the wedge-shape of a jetfighter. (Its title, Rabble, is the generic for a flock of butterflies or swarm of insects.) The suspended specimens slowly flap their wings, animating the plane caught in midflight. Viewers listening closely will be able to hear the wings tapping against each other, an unanticipated sonic effect. To stabilize the aircraft, the artists anchored each butterfly with a small pewter weight, round like a miniature globe. Contrails, streaming out behind the jet, are realized by about four hundred fabric flowers, as vividly colored and varied as the butterflies.

Rabble represents a conceptually astute blending of natural and manmade flight. The image inspires marvel. And its barely perceptible details piece together large ideas about migration and transformation. Nature's ravishing beauty, the Lepidoptera, is used in multitude to create a fighter plane with a terrible beauty of its own. Looked at another way, the nearly impervious agent of war has been rendered harmless, "reduced" to a throng of diaphanous butterflies: flower power of a new dimension. Combining this rabble with the flowers and the globe weights, the sculpture makes a metaphor about the cross-pollination of ideas around the world, with the gentle, regular movement of the butterflies' wings giving the conception the breath of life.

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