Wednesday, 9 May 2012

An interview with new exhibitor Helen Oxley

Helen describes herself as a process painter, which means that her work is all about the process itself. She drips canvas, pours paint and pushes canvas and paint through the frames. She does make the frames herself, and sometimes her dad helps.

Her dad helps hang too – here he is in action!

She mostly uses gloss paint in her work for its fluidity (because it’s drippy to you and me!) and it is rather toxic and fume-y. Helen has been sniffing this for a good few months now! In all seriousness though, Helen does open the doors and window in her studio and limits herself to 4 hours at time. She is thinking about making the move to using Acrylic Gloss but there is a more limited colour range, her usual range is Dulux Trade who have about a ‘zillion’ colours according to Helen.

So what does she wear? Old jeans with a spattering of paint, old tops with a spattering of paint and old shoes with (you guessed it) a spattering of paint! She isn’t able to keep a headscarf on as she moves around a lot so she also tends to get a lot of paint spatters in her hair too. Helen tends to work from back to front and top to bottom so she gets dripped on a lot.

Her studio has inspirational images on the wall, dried paint on there too – not dabs of it but she collects the round bits that dry out from the bottom of old gloss paint tins, and notes and quotes. She either has music on or the radio and listens to a wide range of artists depending on her mood. Furniture wise there is a table, 2 chairs and some shelves which are mostly full of tins of paint. She thinks in excess of 100 tins of paint. Helen uses the tins to prop paintings up while she is working on them or while they are drying and to hold the door open. I asked, and the number of paint tin related injuries or accidents this year was only 2 both involving floors; one studio and one car boot. (Joint car boot too).

I wondered if she had a little ritual before she started work, but there was nothing out of the ordinary, has coffee and a bit of thinking time and then sometimes starts with doing some work on her sketchbook. Swap sketchbook for To Do List and that could be my office morning routine.

So Helen explained a little bit more about Process Painting;  
Process painting began in the 1960’s with Richard Serra (have a nosy at his MoMA exhibition here from 2007 , and Helens main inspirations include Rothko, particularly his colour fields, Barnett Newman who is very painterly (both can be found here )  and Lucio Fontana who was the one who started slashing canvasses although his work is more conceptual than Helens. (See Lucio’s work here which includes a picture of him in action slashing!)

Helen is also impressed by Karla Black who was a runner up for The Turner Prize last year (you can watch a video of her and her work here, although I will give this video an art speak warning Speaking of the Turner Prize, £25,000 to the winner – that’s why it’s important folks, here is a link to this years nominees,  ,who do you think will get it? Me, I reckon Spartacus, mostly because it’s a great name!

When Helen creates work, she tries to always make something new and she describes this as “questioning what painting is really”.

Blue Tryptch

When Helen was making this piece she was thinking about the exhibition here at The ACE, she tends to like working on a large scale but made this into a triptych for practical reasons really – i.e. moving the work and installing it. She had some photographs of Monet’s water lilies – the really large panoramics – have a look here… . Helen was thinking of scale and grandness but was also thinking about the building and the space her work was going to be shown in, and it is a “colour that is pleasing to me”.

At this point our interview was interrupted by Helen’s dad wanting a staple gun. Luckily Helen had one in her bag, and some staples. I was impressed. Like father, like daughter we decided.

Eighty-Six, 2012, mixed media on canvas, £850

Monochrome is a challenge for Helen as she loves colour, even pronouncing it, “I luurve colour”, but she was thinking of our purple wall in the gallery and it was a deliberate choice to do this and come out of her comfort zone.

This exhibition is called Skin for a few reasons; the paint Helen uses skins over, there is an element of the work being about the body and Helen particularly likes the way the paints skins over and dries on one layer but leaves wet layers underneath.

Then I asked about titles of work as it does give us a little insight into our Exhibiting Artists mind. These are mostly ambiguous, not descriptive titles, I asked if Helen liked ambiguity and she replied quickly “Yes, Yes I do” and went on to explain that her work was fundamentally abstract and she was not trying to make people feel something or wonder something but she liked people to think ‘How did she do that?’.

One is called Subcutis, which is the third layer of skin and this was simply because Helen liked the word.

Subcutis, 2012, gloss paint on canvas, £1150

Another is The Newman Painting No 1. which is a nod to two artists; Bryce Marsden who titled a work The Dylan Painting (have a look here,, it’s mostly grey) and it was a title Helen liked and also the work reminded her of Newman’s work so it’s a nod to both artists.

The Newman Painting No1, Diptych, 2012, gloss paint on canvas, £2100

Helen’s work is physically draining, it’s a tiring process and she feels physically and mentally drained afterwards. As I usually like to compare things I mentioned I spent 4 hours digging up dandelions on Sunday morning and asked Helen if she thought her 4 hours in the studio would be as, less or more tiring than this Herculean feat of mine! She reckoned on a par! And she does this regularly, humpf, some steam gone out of me…

She did say she felt like she had achieved something after working, so it was a good tired. I know how that feels, as I sat back with a coffee and admired my clean, dandelion free, soil, while deliberately not looking at the other patches of garden filled with approximately a ‘zillion’ more dandelions.  

I asked Helen how she knew when she had finished a piece and she said, “now that’s the million dollar question” at which point I puffed my chest out again – get me asking such a good question… to which the answer was – deciding when to stop is really hard. Sometimes she puts things to one side and comes back to them later to decide whether to add anything more.

She said the process can be mentally draining and exciting too, sometimes she will start a work and love it, then an hour later she may hate it and think it isn’t working at which point sometimes she will walk away and leave it and sometimes she will hunker down and work though it. The next day she may love it and sometimes she will abandon a work.

This inspired me – I think we should have an Abandoned Works exhibition. Helen liked the idea, as one mans rubbish is another’s treasure after all. Watch this space.

So here are more pictures of Skin, Helen’s first ever solo show, and if you are free between 6.30 and 8pm on Thursday 10th May join Helen at The ACE for a glass of wine and a look around, oh and I’ll be there too. We’d love to see you.

Tremorlands, 2012, mixed media on canvas, £850

Seethe, 2012, mixed media on canvas, £850

Untitled No1, 2012, gloss paint on canvas, £1150

Murmur, Triptych, 2012, gloss paint on canvas, £2850

Between Red and Yellow, 2012, gloss paint on canvas, £1150

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