Friday, September 7, 2012
HELEN O LEARY
Shapes of disappointment,
Egg oil on wood
What are you working on in your studio right now?
I’m just back from three months of being on the road; my gut response to the studio upon landing was one of bushwhacking, pairing down and getting rid of things that went too far or didn’t go far enough, with a fresh eye searching for the spare and dense. I want the architecture of my paintings to be even lighter, and have to have more of an overlap with my personal world. I spent the first two weeks deep cleaning the studio, piling things high in the alley, erasing, and shedding, and getting back to the bare white bones of the studio. I re-mudded the walls, and am ready to go.
I’m thinking a lot about visual poetry, story telling, and the shifting gears between painting, visual wit, photography, and found text. I spent the summer working on a collaboration with my daughter Eva O’ Leary in Ireland about the current uncertainty with the economic downturn, and I’m taking the conceptual armature of the summer and translating it back into painting.
Our summer was a car full of cameras, a few clothes, a well marked map, and for three months we attempted to find the ‘back story’ of ‘uncertainty’ present in co-existing realities, economic: emotional, sexual, physical, etc. with photographs, texts culled from the Done Deal (on line broad sheet, the equivalent of craigs list) with its continued possibility of material gain and dating sites, with their grandiose promise of love and stability. This work will take the form of book and painted constructions, but as of now it is still very much a work in progress.
We are currently in the process of editing photographs and deciding on the next step of our collaboration. It was a great studio break, completely surrounded by invention and imagination, fabulous people and epic landscape. I fed my soul and came back ready to re-think the current trajectory in the studio.
My work uses my life as subject matter, at middle age and mid career, post nuclear family, my continued unpacking and packing, belonging and retraction of homes between countries. I locate my work between the moments of material and emotional certainty, the short shelf life of predictability, both laughing at and questioning the structural prosthesis of conventions established through economic, cultural and gender constraints. Currently I’m interested in the uncertainty present in any economic downturn or change, between youth and middle age, and in the rupture between external and internal life. I look outside and within the tradition of painting for content, and lately been looking at the form inherent in sean-nos singing, (lament) for its economy of form and the content and meaning inherent in it’s frugal self containment, and have used a similar self containments in my approach to painting.
Bushwick Studio, NY
Can you describe your working routine?
First thing in the morning are my best hours in the studio. I get to the studio early and love the quiet that I find there. I divide the day into working bits, morning is when I look, and sit with the work. I trust these early morning intuitive decisions, yet un-jaded by the events of the day. I know if something is working in that first glance, and make the big decisions with a fresh mind.
Afternoon and evening time varies usually a lot more physical moving in or around the painting. I sometimes make my constructions in the metal shop, which is loud, metal on metal, anvils, noise, public, and takes a different kind of energy. The armature I construct is important, and is the silent backstory, it takes a lot of time, welding, riveting, hammering etc. It’s also a learning curve which I enjoy, as I’m very much a painter, and flattening out the purpose of shredded filing cabinets, knitting needles, umbrellas, bits of my car, house, and life is a way of putting my life and painting together in an uneasy wobbly relationship. I wear headphones and safety glasses, it’s a uniform, and creates an insular protected world, which is appealing. It’s a real work out, and I like the compression that is achieved when I make a small scaffold or object out of the splintered familiarity of function. These hammered scaffolds create a matter of fact backstory of support for the suspended exterior more vulnerable thinness of the world of cloth.
I like to learn new things, to go back to the beginning; I teach at Penn State University, so it’s logical to take classes and learn new things, clay, metal, writing, and then figure out how to fold it back into my painting.
Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?
My studios vary and I ‘break them in’ so they become very safe personal private spaces. I have two, one in NY and one in PA where I teach. I travel a lot and I have developed a way of working when away from the home base. In many ways picking my work apart into small lots was a direct result of my peripatetic life, and it has very much influenced my practice. I have two floors to the studio in PA; it is an old wooden barn with two floors and a lot of natural light. I sleep in both my studios, I like living in a painting. My garden is right outside and I take breaks to weed, or build make shift supports for plants. I do all of the dirty work down stairs, the spills, the spreads, the hacking, and bring drawing or small details upstairs to see them in a pristine setting. My studio in New York is in Bushwick, has an elevated train right outside my window. It’s bright, different from the quiet of PA. There is a hectic world outside my door, and calls for different sparser sort of work. My life is usually on the go, inside out, physically making or unraveling stuff, my working routine is as fragmented as the work I produce.
Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.
I am very much an intuitive thinker. I need stuff, materials, goo, beauty, and need my body to be involved in the process. I make things that rely on how they are made, and I want the story of their making to be evident in the final product.
The starting idea has to come from some nub of absurd truth in my life. I whittle in the studio, rooting for meaning in the attempts and failures of every day, with paint, with thread, canvas, and wood and aluminum. Something will catch my attention as a storyline, and then I search the materials that could expand the meaning. I need laughter and absurdity to be a part of the process, if something makes me laugh when I make it I know I’m on the right track and it might just be good. I have books on how to make paint, old archaic recipes, supports etc. and collect how to do books. I want the reassurance of the ordinary to be present in the simplicity of materials and in the collections of unglamorous gestures that I catalogue.
Painting, when good, in its unfolding process, has the capacity to blow my heart right open.
What are you having the most trouble resolving?
My collaborations, artist books, constructions, painting, collections of vernacular language I find in the world on a daily basis, I want this to be all the one work some day. I take worn out language and re-work them, found texts, images, and change the context so new meaning is reached. I always feel its close, but I’ve yet to put it together. I construct worlds, and the world I want to construct is bigger and more articulate than the ones I have managed so far.
steel, aluminum, wood, ceramic, gold and platinum lustre, oil on linen
Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?
Yes, I love materials. For the last project, OUTAWACK, which was a series of small paintings suspended on hammered armature, I made thousands of my own ceramic pins, which I lustered with gold and platinum. I took a class and thrived on the sensitivity that clay offers. I wanted the piece to be large, huge, epic and heroic, through many small moments, piecemealed together somewhere between tent and painting, and it was important for me that I made absolutely every last bit in the show.
That work was long in the making, it came out of my internal and external life, movement between countries, Lyme disease that has been a battle, the absurd changes of middle age, divorce, the failing Irish economy that seemed to back drop my changing life, and my long commitment to the interrogation and expansion of painting.
I experimented a lot, playing with the many notions of supports and surfaces. I knew I wanted thin and wobbly, so I started with a very broad of possibility, and took it from there.
I have used glass, (in collaboration with Sarah Schwartz), made my own mirrors, loving the alchemy of pouring silver nitrate onto glass, used etching where to make my own legal pads, encaustic, made my own paints, chalk grounds, everything is fair game. I try to come to each material with a question mark of what else it can do or how else I can use it, or reclaim it and some how give it new meaning. Right now I’m focusing on welding and hammering, metal, whittling, and thinness. I don’t really know where it will take me, but I trust my instincts.
Places I’ve lived, 2011-12
egg oil on cardboard, board, linen
& platinum pins
What does the future hold for this work?
I have an idea of what it will look like, but, I know how I work and I deviate from plans with great enthusiasm. I want this next work to be more like an Opera, embracing spectacle, in my own homespun way. I know I’m ready to make a book that will work with the next piece. I have a lot to learn, and am readying myself to confront a new question mark. Most of all, want to remain vulnerable, un-rigid, and open to ideas and experience.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Listening to Shane Mc Gowen and the pogues in the 80’s clarified for me the power of language and opened up the possibility of re-inventing poetic tenderness without nostalgia. His stories of being alive sung through the rich cadence of lyrical Irish Folk music with a good splash of punk emboldened me to harness my nagging doubt and extreme optimism as viable tools in the studio. It opened up the possibility to own the pure pleasure of paint as my first language.
Thank you so much Valerie, it was lovely to sit down and share my studio with you.
Grand Indistinguishable Facts 2011-12
paint, linen, aluminum, gold lustred porcelain, steel,
encaustic on wood, encaustic on cardboard