There is something musical in how Helen Blake’s work unfolds over time. This is true of the artist’s process; it is also true for the viewer. The longer you spend with Blake’s work, the more it yields. Blake paints meticulously, in oils, on an increasingly small scale in recent years, using canvases at times no larger than an average paperback. At first impression, these works convey a bright, orderly abstraction, composed of diamonds, lozenges, triangles, and jagged serrations, interlocked with a grid-like rectilinear formality. However, upon closer inspection, these repeated shapes and geometric impressions are not so streamlined or symmetrical as they appear; they are not the product of careful planning but the result of gradually accreted layers of colour, one laid one on top of the other, affecting one another without intermingling.
Blake’s canvases are carefully composed over time, assembled by increment, one monochrome layer applied over another. As such, each stage of the process is guided by the chance inconsistencies or irregularities of the last, rather than being arranged according to some pre-ordained axial or geometric plan. This method allows the work to remain open to the felicities of the material; it is also naturally, necessarily slow. Oil paints, after all, take time to dry. There is, as a consequence, a durational quality to Blake’s paintings. They are meditative and rich. Every layer of colour imbues or guides the next, creating a complex palimpsest within each work.
There’s even something of a geological pleasure in looking at what results. These are exercises in colourful abstraction, both meditative and playful. In Blue Kisses (all works, 2016), for instance, a textured grid formed of ridges of paint surrounds a central panel of pale-blue squares, almost obscured under a coat of warm grey, with four radial lines of bold cobalt blue (bordered by fringes of Indian yellow) laid on top, drawing the viewer’s eye into the centre of an emblazoned X. Yet at the same time the work resists this simple geometry; the complex underlying patterns pulling against one another, shifting the centre of focus. Many of Blake’s works are marked by such internal tensions.
These tensions are the result of the rigour with which she regiments her own process. For instance, each abstract stratum is painted strictly by hand, though with as much precision as possible, coming in this way as close to mechanical regularity as possible without the intervention of the machine. This leads to some rewarding juxtapositions. Take one of a set of somewhat larger paintings, Interface, in which a dense mass of repeated tawny serrated lines engulfs a patchwork of pale blue squares, grey and flesh-pink. At first sight, this coloured mass seems machine-like, regularised. Examined more closely, an irregularity of pattern becomes clear, signs of the artist’s hand, an asymmetry that counterbalances the weight of the arrangement. Or in Little Rest, a Tetris-like arrangement occupies the bottom right-hand corner of the canvas, forming a corner of grey squares, bisected by lines of sandy yellow and bright orange. Emanating from and following the pattern of this assembly of blocks, a series of thick jagged apricot lines emanate across the rest of the canvas, partially obscuring – though without obliterating – what looks like a grid of amber and maroon.
As well as these internal frictions, there are echoes and continuities across canvases. Given the long gestation periods for individual paintings, and the strictness of Blake’s method, she tends to work on several canvases simultaneously. This is a matter of expediency, but it also informs her method, allowing one work to interpenetrate another. At any given moment, she will have several works in rotation, constructed according to this set of seemingly almost arbitrary, self-imposed rules: these constraints are the fundamentals of Blake’s idiosyncratic, organic process.
It is a process she has been developing throughout her career. Early on, she began painting in repeated, strictly circumscribed upright dashes, almost like ciphers, as if she were painting in Ogham or one of the Runic languages. Out of this, for the last ten years, the parameters – and constraints – of her current method have evolved.
I have written about Blake’s work before, and returning to it now, I feel as if I am myself layering over what I’ve written previously; new impressions spreading like fresh accretions over old ones. I find myself returning to the idea of ‘rhythm’, a word I am not the first to use in application to her work. This musical parallel seems an enriching way to think of her process, which is naturally rhythmical, its use of layers and accretions operating musically, through simultaneity, rather than narrative or illustration.
In conversation with the artist recently, however, I suggested another point of entry. She mentioned the work of her brother, a physicist in Cambridge University, whose work focuses upon the development of device materials, harnessing the nanoscale interaction of superconductivity and magnetism. Blake explained it to me as the science of the layering of atoms, examining what happens when one subatomic layer meets another; they do not mix, but they affect one another nevertheless. I can’t claim to understand this theoretically, but it seems suggestive nonetheless, a way of considering the artist’s particular instinct for coincidence and simultaneity. Her work is layered like skins of atoms; proximity itself acquires, in her hands, some fructuous power. Her process is designed to foster serendipities. The rich, processual paintings that ensue are the product of chance, patience, coincidence in time. They repay the viewer’s time, likewise, in abundance.
Nathan O’Donnell is a writer of fiction and criticism and one of the co-editors of Paper Visual Art Journal.