RABBIT BY HELEN TURNER
Rabbit by Helen Turner. Oil on linen. Signed.
Helen (born 1964) studied Fine Art at Canterbury College of Art between 1982–1986 studying under Roy Oxlade where she gained a BA Hons degree in Painting. From 1989-1990 she lived and painted in Cyprus and completed the Postgraduate Diploma from Cyprus College of Art. She lives and works in Lewes, East Sussex. She was selected as Artist of the Day in 2006 at Flowers Central (London) by artist Tom Hammick and was selected for the prestigious John Moores contemporary painting prize in 2002. Helen had a solo show at the Eagle gallery in London in 2013, and was selected for the Fade Away exhibition at London's Transition Gallery, together with a published book called 'About Painting'.
Turner makes paintings, drawings and collages instinctively as a way of linking her imagination to the world around her. References and inspirations come from autobiographical experiences, her love of art, fashion, colour and nature. Her work is often large scale with big, bold, bright imagery full of space, light, colour and confidence incorporating a very physical use of paint and relationship to the canvas. There is a love of life celebrated here yet simultaneously balanced and contained, the consistent use of black outlines and solid colour hinting at melancholic feelings just below the surface. The pared down simplicity she seeks to achieve is not easily found. In the same way that shorthand compresses meaning, her paintings are energetic distillations, notations of experience, sensitively composed.
Review by Julian Bell 2013
“I don’t want my paintings to look like paintings.”
Paintings, I’m guessing from what Helen Turner is saying, are those thoughtfully composed rectangles of colours and shapes with that long, venerable tradition behind them. Thanks to the tradition, they’re weighted down with time, and yet we like to think of them as reservoirs of stillness – aesthetically ‘timeless’, as the saying goes.
Whereas Turner’s paintings are... ‘Jumpy’ might be the word. Blurt, grab, scrub, cut – it’s verbs, it’s actions, that set the rules here, over and above stable nouns (‘rabbit’, ‘rose’, ‘black’, ‘pink’). Something has just now happened – a Turner painting declares, and it is as if any moment some new action might succeed it. Because, typically, so many previous actions have been overruled. The now in a Turner painting gets pitched against a then of erasures, smotherings, damage. The picture comes out to meet you like someone bursting from a doorway through which you’ve just been hearing a shouting match.
All of which makes her work far more aesthetically potent than most painting- type painting. Because all the while, as her own paradoxical remark confirms, what we are looking at is an arrested composition of colours and shapes. And how strange the placements come out: the figures she draws and the fields of colour they inhabit and the stretched canvases those colours themselves are laid down in – all of these coexist in such a jagged, crackly tension, with maximum radioactivity at the edges and margins where one element does or doesn’t quite meet up with another. How strange, and how right. The more I look, the more I’m held.
A freeze of a pole-vault might show the athlete’s body in weird foreshorten-ings, but behind it there’s the necessity of an inexorable forward motion – it’s slightly like that.
Turner is seeking... not quite perfection, as an athlete might chase it: but a form of purity, even so. Showing me round her studio she holds up a humble sheet torn from a ringbound A6 notebook. Her daughter drew a tiny pond with a duck on it in wax crayon, added on stickers from a sticker book (kittens, bunnies), pasted on a patch of glitter: plus, somewhere in the kitchen, grease got on the sheet and stained it. “It’s perfect. It’s much more sophisticated than I could do.” This talismanic relic from a dozen or more years ago marks the point at which Turner set out on her present artistic direction, trying to unlearn the ‘painting-type painting’ she’d been doing at Canterbury College of Art, back in the 1980s.
Her new take on studio work has been broadly as follows: why waste your time making things, unless you are making what you want. Almost literally. Those Miu Miu shoes you couldn’t afford, that handbag... What you make, it turns out, is the actual wanting of them. You give that consumer ache a visible content and thus make it tolerable; you exorcise it, perhaps. This way, your work in the studio might be transparent to your ‘original self’, just as a child’s play with stickers is. “I want this. And I want this. No, actually, I want this.” You add, you subtract, and the end painting is the whole sum of those little-girl longings, all their workings laid out. That way, you might approach authenticity.
Turner talks of images coming to her unbidden, and her daughter (now a student) suggests that she trusts her inner child almost in the way William Blake did – “Everything to be imagined is an image of truth.”
Now, it is not the critic’s job to believe that at all. On duty, he’s got to put his trust in looking outside himself and learning – earnest learning, with no un- about it. Yet so often what he’s looking at is strong because it’s informed by such a faith. I resolve the contradiction by telling myself that Turner hasn’t actually unlearnt her art school training, she’s simply ingeniously reinterpreted it. I’m intrigued by the discriminations she herself plots, as a viewer of art:
yes Twombly, yes Schnabel, Basquiat not really. More, I’m struck by the complexity of her own contraptions of innocence – the way affordable cotton duck is flounced and glued so as to simulate a glam frock, or alternately the way a paper wrapping has been distressed so as to appear as dirt-cheap as possible. ‘Art’, meaning cunning, is the name of the game here. But this hunt for a different place, well to the side of painting, this swaggering, bomb-happy girliness that skids onto the strangest of formal hard shoulders – that’s what art means too, or at least what it ought to.