Helen Blake makes optically rich paintings that are as engaging on a formal level as they are on a metaphorical one.
I first encountered her work in 2013 at an open exhibition of Wicklow artists held in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray. A small painting, it was intricate, layer upon cross layer of rich colour, building up a geometric abstraction that sang with curiosity and meaning.
If Agnes Martin, the great 20th Century American artist, pared down painting to the essential grid to open it into a form of purity, Blake starts from there to build up the grid to offer us the joy of complexity. Colour startles in Blake’s compositions, the variety of it, the symphony of it. One reaches for the Thesaurus to help to name the dozen shades of purple alone. And she knows her colour wheel, what can complement and what can jar.
This palette is put into the servitude of geometry – square, rectangle, triangle, chevron, cone - to create a myriad of possibility, evident in its agility to evade repetition in any installation of a Blake show that you may see. Its geometric execution isn’t mechanical but humanised, the touch of the artist there in every line. The ridges of the brushstroke offer a haptic quality to the surface.
Her scale is domestic, the largest work rarely more than a metre each way. They are made to live in the spaces we dwell in. Made to be encountered daily, in differing light, in our different moods. Their intricate surfaces abounding with detail are confident in their ability to continuously engage us.
This detailing is hard won, requiring as it does intense labour from the artist to lay down layer upon layer of pigment. Each application must be allowed to dry before the next is applied so many canvases are on the go at one time. One imagines the concentration required to maintain the individual drive of each creation. These are fugues of colour and organisation earned through absolute dedication to the craft of oil painting.
I get giddy looking at these paintings. I am reminded of my one visit to the 16th century city of Isfahan in Iran. The design of the city oozes a deliberation, a suggestion of elegant equations in all of its proportions, as if there is some metaphysical order glimpsed from its hidden plan. I have the same reaction here, that some underlying scheme pervades Blake’s work. It excites and appeals through its combination of intimate scale, profuse use of colour and acrobatic geometry. This extension of abstraction into metaphor is further encouraged by the artist’s use of titles. Blake’s ability with language is as keen and agile as her paintings. Her titles conflate the schematics of her abstractions into diagrams of meaning, from the likes of the regimented Unity to a search inducing Queen of flaws. There is a hospitality to Blake’s work, a real sense of the viewer and an engagement with them. Helen Blake is a maximalist, tongue twisting the idiom of minimalism and enjoying it, seriously!
Patrick T Murphy
Director, RHA Dublin, 2021