I first worked with Aly Helyer in April 2011. She was one of three winners of the 2010 Core Gallery Open; the other winning artists were Tom Butler and Marion Michell. The prize was an exhibition of their work called Extra-Ordianary, and extraordinary it was. I co-curated this exhibition with Rosalind Davis. During the artists/curator dialogue each artist made a PowerPoint presentation discussing their backgrounds; that was when I saw Aly’s Strange Fruit – I melted where I stood.
The simplicity of process, pouring and puddling ink, combined with a personal trust in the power of artistic creation gives these works a complex psychological tension. Aly made a series of these images during a time of personal difficulty. They carry the innocence of child’s play and exude human turmoil. They are delicate, fragile and vulnerable but with a captivating presence and force.
I knew immediately I wanted to exhibit this work. I asked Aly at the end of the dialogue session if she would like to exhibit them in a show I was putting together and she said yes with no further hesitation. Elation! Now I had to put a show together. I didn’t know what it would be about or who the other artists would be, all I knew was I had Aly and I was thrilled.
Jane Boyer: Are you working with specific ideas of individuals in mind when you locate the ‘eye’ or ‘mouth’ and develop the portrait from there or is it purely fictional?
Aly Helyer: No I wouldn’t say specific individuals, although when a painting is finished something about it can remind me of someone I know or once knew. Mostly though they feel very familiar as if I’ve known them all my life, but this is the first time I’ve truly seen or recognised them.
JB: How does memory function in this approach for you?
AH: Everything is filtered through memory whether directly observed or not, nothing is objective, we all see and remember things differently, but I am also interested in an older shared memory, a universal memory. A friend took me to see the Tito Bustillo cave a few years back and it was incredible how these drawings and paintings from thousands of years ago had the power to trigger something deep in my own memory, there was an amazing connection, a familiarity there.
“It was the first time everything I was making was made on the floor, it was very much process based another first for me, just pouring inks and watercolours and letting them find their place…I wanted to surprise myself, searching for something I hadn’t seen before, emptying my head of all the crap, all the people, even myself as far as this is possible. Gradually something resembling heads started to appear, lots of them and it was as if they were having conversations with each other. This was my journey back to painting.”
JB: How did this experience, which we see examples of in Strange Fruit and Happy Family with Sheep, affect your work overall?
AH: It was a very difficult period of my life; the studio slowly became a safe place for me to have some fun, to start experimenting and it was the first time in my life I hadn’t worked from observation. It was a very liberating time for me, this way of working and the openness it allows is still very much with me now.
I see Happy Family with Sheep as a kind of ending, closing a chapter of my life; it came out of obliterating an early piece of work, but it also contains the seeds of some of the processes that you see in later works. Strange Fruit was really the catalyst, the first work I made without any anchors.
JB: Your method, if we can call it that, has moved from outward observation to inward intuition to letting the painting develop on its own terms. Is this significant for you? Does this relate at all to how you see your own position in the world?
AH: Initially it was very important to move away from outward observation, it came out of necessity for me, and I had to close myself off from the real world for a while although outward observation is creeping back into the work acting as little anchors.
I think it was [Philip] Guston who said something about searching for the technique, and the technique becoming inseparable from the object, an interlocking of image and paint, so yes the methods or techniques that I use are incredibly important as they allow me to get closer to this way of working, sort of trapping the image that I arrive at. The act of making paintings is a way of me trying to figure out my place in the world and how I relate to it.
Aly’s suggested reading:
Aly was invited to be part of The Perfect Nude, curated by Phillip Allen and Dan Coombs who asked over 100 artists to make paintings of the nude in hope the show will create a rich network of images that will establish a context for representation of the body in contemporary painting. This exhibition, opened at Wimbledon Space in January and travels to Phoenix Gallery in Exeter later this month:
Thursday 29th March – Saturday 12th May 2012
Open Monday to Saturday 10am – 6pm (closed Bank Holidays)
Phoenix Gallery | Exeter Phoenix | Bradninch Place | Exeter EX4 3LS