Painting at the End of the World had the opportunity to catch up with Helen Baker to discuss her painting practice.
PATEOTW: What are you working on at the moment in the studio?
HB: Small ones, little works on board and paper and reworking some old ones too like the red one I just put on Instagram and another with a little shelf
PATEOTW: Tell me a little about how this series started?
HB: The small block works started in Rome; on canvas, the idea of building, mending and trying to put a form together from fragments was particularly evident in the Forum. It appealed to me as an oddment of attempts made at different times in history then disassembled. When I was growing up in Newcastle in the 70’s things were being knocked down and built up so I was already interested in this. Work previous to that had been more like patching knitting the labor of making as a flat form. I like work that is human and vulnerable but not sentimental. The simple act of building with the problems of gravity or space or weight or material presence are enough to deal with at that size.
PATEOTW: What’s the approach to the production of the block paintings? Systematic and time bound? I.e. are there gaps of time in the addition of marks? Or more intuitive and immediate? There’s an echo of arte-povera there in some of them, would you agree? I say that because of the choice of support used and scale.
HB: Sorry I meant 60’s not 70’s. The block paintings are intuitive but I can very often work them over a long time frame and go back to them and lose them occasionally. It’s to do with the kind of space they occupy and what happens when you add or subtract a certain weight of colour or bit of paint.
I know what you mean about Arte Povera and certainly I have tried different supports that are low key, low grade if you like, but my influences are less theatrical and more puritanical I think. I like post-war put together British modernism, small scale oddments. I get uncomfortable when the work becomes too slick.
PATEOTW: What do you think the difference might be in the perceived language between say slick and low grade? I imagine Newcastle has changed unrecognizably over the last few decades, from industrial to its post?
HB: Ha yes, I guess it’s to do with function. When the function of the piece is pure and simple rather than an attempt to give sensation to a style. I think a lot of the work is under threat of not quite functioning. Vulnerable.
Yes, the 60’s decaying industrial city in Newcastle was dirty, black buildings old empty dock warehouses then the Centre was gutted and concrete slabs replaced old warehousing. A brave new world that had to be abandoned and the old warehouses that are left are newly cleaned up, concrete is the lovely ruin.
PATEOTW: What might be an example of that? A painting that isn’t functional or is vulnerable? Would you say style over content?
HB: Well style is content. No what I mean is that I make my work to have the sense of being under threat of not functioning. Slick work functions too well. It fails to pull you in to be with it. I think that’s why Marandi paintings have to be the scale they are. The larger works I make tend to be more conscious of a system of making breaking down in some way. Like a piece of flawed knitting or a degenerated mosaic.
PATEOTW: I see. The concentration of daubs and or marks?
So the larger works on canvas I might describe partially as a ‘zooming out of’ some of the smaller block works, Blue2017 for example. That makes sense to me in terms of you modulating both audience and painter’s viewpoint or position optically. For me they talk about very different things, in terms of making paintings, but perhaps the same information or dialogue occurs in both. I feel that Blue 2017 transmits a very logical sense of contemporary reality or system reality, like the breakdown in systems that you mention…nothing is straightforward, connections break then reform later, there is a definite overlapping of time and labor, perhaps loss of control etc., which fits perfectly with the subjects I’m covering in the essay for the show Painting inside the Matrix: Code and its Others. The Block works for me do discuss the same issues, but in much more abridged way.
I guess a question might be, are you conscious of the gaps that appear in the transmission that you may or may not need at times? Another way to say that might be, do you think style, as deliverer of content, is perhaps too powerful? I would love you to throw another couple of names out.
HB: Yes, I think you may have hit on something I was only aware of as a need to move into a painting corner from time to time in the small works. A kind of reminder of why things happen… both the making and the disruption. With the small works you enter into that inner world of control- production, and then, disruption- doubt. It’s like Paul Klee had this system all worked out books of why and how, but his best works for me are those little basic squares on scraps no elaboration. The first time I warmed towards Agnes Martin was when I saw a badly patched work of hers, the paint had gone a bit sticky at a certain point, Mondrian with his slightly cracked surfaces, dirty 50’s white wooden reliefs these are a few of my favorite things…
PATEOTW: So, the materiality and stuff of the thing and it’s resonance? So going back to a point you made earlier in the conversation when you mentioned slick. Do you feel that once the connection to material is lost, say on a massive canvas, that’s when a work becomes less somehow?
HB: It has a different way of being with you….I mean the connection between the material of paint and the kind of light held in a colour is what inscribes the Rothko, late Scully or Guston. Clifford Still with his fantastic big ugly canvases. But I guess with all scales of work you look for the disruptions that indicate a doubt or rethink, Mary Heilmann is pretty slick in one way but it’s that “no no this not that” that gets you interested. Raoul de Keyser holding back and making, what’s there materially, work so hard to keep it together. When its operating optically in a piece I guess the light is the dominant material present operating the doubt or rethink but we are still checking out those blobs.
PATEOTW: Have you read any of those Isabelle Graw texts about painting and indexicality? The paintings becoming quasi person’s?
HB: I watched the Graw lecture at the Jewish Museum and just read your essay. I need to think more about the kind of Turin shroud she’s proposing, I think the performative presence in paint is absolute. And although I think she has got it right with the art industry and the consumption of art objects but isn’t there also something else to do with taking a “souvenir” a remembering of a way of seeing thinking being that is part of being social to gain from each other a touch stone. I will look out for the texts you mention.
PATEOTW: I think you are right when you say the performative presence in paint is absolute. This might seem like an odd question, but do you feel like the performance is driven by a temporal link, that takes the performer painter, back directly to moments in their memory (reality)?
HB: Yes, and at its best it works as a fleeting moment that informs the way the marks, stuff, is directed. But it has to be arrived at with memories that are relevant, so it’s not a totally unconscious process. And also, through performance, a desire to link with other work… and of course the historical hand me downs can be both a blessing and a nuisance which is why I think we are constantly using our own notion of reality, whether we reach for it intuitively or consciously, as both a way of releasing new attitudes and negating old ones we no longer subscribe to.
PATEOTW: Wow, that’s a great answer. I once had an interview for a PhD, and part of the proposal that I had to explain to a panel, was that in theory, each and every daub was the equivalent to a memory, a thought, a transaction or even a kind of banal ‘what I had for dinner last night’. I was arguing that therefore the painting when complete, represented a myriad of thought conversations, taking place during construction, but that was never discussed in any appraisal of content. Content was the whole thing, rather than its mechanics they claimed. Needless to say, I didn’t get on the PhD. I agree that it can be a nuisance. The orthodox voice on the shoulder, telling you what to do is the most annoying. I think that voice is the voice of our system reality. Have you developed any strategies to turn those ‘hand me downs’ you describe onto mute?
HB: Yes, the strategy I’ve developed unfortunately means I doubt and destroy work constantly. I’m currently contemplating a piece of work I no longer have that I need to make again if I can …not a very clever strategy
PATEOTW: Well if it works, why not. Works sometimes get lost between those issues you raise. So, it might make sense to let it breakdown, assess the damage and where it occurred, then start again. Like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, following breadcrumbs back and forth. I’ve never re-made a work, I throw them too…around 60%. This is a tricky question then, in light of those issues, what might have gone wrong do you think, in a work that triggers doubt? Technically, content, overall attitude of the thing, its reflexivity…?
HB: I think when I destroy work either I’ve been removed from the work and misunderstood it, what it was or what it needed, or I’ve made it and then not known where to go and panicked. With me it’s usually the overall attitude of the thing that makes me doubt its validity. Yes. Hansel and Gretel is a good analogy. The work is never the same. New ways of making creep in anyway and new doubts. Of course destroying work is also very cleansing and a real luxury. It goes against the work ethic.
PATEOTW: That’s absolutely great Helen, thank you so much for your time. My last question: What’s happening next for you over the summer? Work and play?
HB: I’m keen to pursue the small works and I’m working a couple of larger pieces that operate off a patch of the canvas now, not using the whole field, as if it is uncropped. Quite what this is about I’m unsure. I will be reflecting a lot. Maybe reading and possibly try writing. I’ve been intending to make another artists book for a year…it’s starting to bubble up a bit. It’s going to be quite important for me to see what you have done setting me with these other artists in the space and reading around your thinking …and I’m hoping it might clarify a few things for me. So, thank you Ian.
PATEOTW: Helen the pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for being involved in this first painting at the End exhibition.