Helen Blake: A room full of altarpieces, but not a church

5 October - 2 November 2023
The Molesworth Gallery is delighted to present a solo exhibition of recent paintings by Helen Blake.


by Aidan Dunne

   The title of Helen Blake’s exhibition, with its inbuilt qualification, is  taken from a phrase she remembers reading. She borrowed it because it seemed to her to sum up something she aims for in her work. Historically, she is especially responsive to the highly detailed representational paintings of the early Northern European renaissance, notably Dutch and Flemish painting, when portraiture and devotional subjects were prominent. Broadly speaking, she feels the temperament of the northern work to be more introspective and contemplative than the southern. She likes how the painters have the ability to engage the viewers’ attention in depth, and considers that this has to do with more than a proliferation of incidental surface detail. There is a sense of interiority, of inner, reflective life. She aspires to make paintings that similarly hold the gaze, that encourage thought and yield discoveries, though, she notes, without implying or appealing to a religious message. 
   Ideas of order are manifested in her paintings. Manifested in the sense that they seem newly emergent in each work, responding to the particularities of each case, rather than being a given as in, say, the case of the uniform, underlying, notionally infinite grid that is a mainstay of much abstract art. While she certainly uses grids, it becomes clear that she doesn’t assume the presence of a universal scaffolding. She builds grids, rather than imposing them or just presuming their presence. And the grids she builds depend not on an idealised geometry but on following a pictorial hunch; they also reflect the nature of human touch. Ideas in her work are always propositional and open, making no claims of certainty. As though every painting is a fresh start, which it is in a way. But it is also inescapably the next stage in a sequence, embedded in a wider framework, an ongoing daily process of working, inheriting the artist’s awareness of what has gone before.
   Several years back, Nathan O’Donnell alluded to “something of a geological pleasure” in looking at her paintings. His evocation of geology is apt in relation to the evidence of physical layering apparent in the surface of each piece. The multiple layers of pigment produce a conspicuously textured surface, so distinctive that it is a feature, the haptic dimension pointed out by Patrick T Murphy in his essay on the artist, rather than an incidental by-product of the working method. O’Donnell’s geological reference is also apt in relation to the sense of an immersion in time that is integral to each painting.
   Besides the textural evidence of successive, overlapping layers of patterns and motifs that gradually accumulate, there are also numerous passages - marginal, fleeting glimpses or sizeable, window-like openings - offering access to fragments of those superseded layers. Often you can look at a painting for a while and then, when you look again, realise you did not even register signs of an entire, underlying layer. These largely hidden schemes of line, colour and pattern are like the intimations and evidence of past eras revealed in geological strata. Deep time.
   Kant once wrote something to the effect that it is very difficult to think about time, because we think with time. Blake’s work exemplifies the dual state of being about time while being made with time. In its cyclical repeat patterns, its intricate, partial, overlapping symmetries, it acknowledges our lived experience of time. Each painting is a complex, coloured network of lattices and motifs comprising variously right-angled grids, concentric bands of stripes, rhombuses in various arrangements, chequerboards. And the way the work is made, through the incremental application of successive layers of oil paint, dictates a measured pace of composition. The artist applies one colour at a time, only adding the next layer when the previous one is dry, which is why she always has several paintings on the go simultaneously, and why each takes a long time to complete.
   The question of colour also impacts on pace. As she works, the immediate question is always what colour comes next, and the answer has to be a colour that is, to her mind, right in relation to the previous colours applied, even as colours are subsumed or replaced. And colours interact in unpredictable ways, you can never be sure until you see them. Each colour opens up new possibilities. Because rhythm is so central an element, music inevitably comes to mind. Rhythm, pace and even volume, in fact, when you consider colour: loud, quiet, neutral, mellow, bright, dark. Colour harmonies and discords. However sharp the discord, Blake’s colour is never colour for its own sake, plucked from the air for effect, it is always at home in a painting’s particular palette, formulated in relation to what is already there. She is not afraid of red, yellow and blue, in answer to Barnett Newman’s rhetorical question. But mostly her colours are a step, or several steps away from primaries. She is drawn to secondary, tertiary and complementary colours.
   While she owns to liking many different kinds of music, she works in silence. Among the properties of early Flemish and Dutch art she likes  are its stillness and air of quietness. Yet music does play a role. Not only analogically, in terms of the rhythmic patterning, but also in terms of the intense experience of colour and colour relationships on offer. It’s fair to say that these paintings really sing.