Sunday, February 16, 2020

Helen Booth: Life, Death, Memory, and Paint

I first fell in love with Helen Booth's very moody abstract landscapes - dark visions of stark lights, half-shadows, and void-black spaces devoid of landmark or structure.

Helen Booth, Winter Light

Helen Booth, Moonrise

And she's been making compelling, evocative abstract work alongside these for a while (her career spans 30 years). In Essence, I, II and III, below, the glowing lacework of looping lines sometimes allude to branches in a snowy landscape and other times to nothing but themselves, a bit like Cy Twombley's line-as-calligraphic-mark.

Helen Booth, Essence, 2008
Helen Booth, Essence II, 2008

What she's making now has me even more interested in her work, and her process of getting there is a great reminder to "trust thyself." In her paintings of the last two years, for which she has been awarded two prestigious grants, from the Pollock-Krasner and Adolph Gottlieb foundations, she concentrates on "the limitless variations of the single dot, and how the individual marks when placed side by side create a dialogue."

Helen Booth, Stardust, 145 cm x 145 cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Black on Black, 150 x 225cm, 2019

Helen Booth, Falling Water, 100 cm x 80 cm,  2019

This is really essential painting, yet for her (and I find for myself as well) it's full of meaning and suggestion. "The dot itself can be many things," she says, "a puncture wound, a beginning, an end, an existence or a loss. It can be the end of a sentence or a punctuation in a landscape. It can symbolize life and it can represent death - a full stop."

Her approach to the canvas seems at once more direct, more authentic, and more introspective and metaphysical, now that she's entering into the material in a way that the concrete references to the landscape didn't permit.

"Memory is also fundamental to my ideas," she says, "both personal memory and how it changes and morphs over a lifetime, and also the memory of Nature. How the magnitude of space and its incomprehensible meaning can also be found in the most micro of organisms." The "dot" in her work, then, can be a star or it can be a cell.

Helen Booth, Winter 1978, 150CM x 150CM, 2016

A trip to Iceland following a distressing period in hospital for complications from an abdominal procedure reinforced her personal belief that, "Nature is the most powerful force and that trying to capture the essence of nature in its purist form is what is important to me as an artist. The cycle of birth and rebirth, in life and in nature is key."

It took shaking the foundations (of her self and her career) for her to see it. "I felt that my landscape paintings had been exhausted," she told me in an email. "I was producing work that felt disconnected in so many ways. It was difficult, and still is to a certain extent, because my galleries expected me to produce the same work - and I did lose quite a few of my regular exhibition opportunities. When I was studying at Wimbledon School of Art, and when I was obviously 30 years younger, I spent a lot of my time experimenting with different ways to paint - and essentially just made work - without thinking too much about what it was that I was trying to achieve."

"After a particularly scary time health-wise (which thankfully wasn't too serious in the end), I realized that I had to make work that was truthful. I literally just started to work without thinking too much, losing myself in the beauty of paint again. A trip to Iceland earlier this year firmed up so many ideas. My advice would be to just stop, if you can, and just follow your instincts and allow yourself the time and space to make mistakes. If you are like me, you will eventually find that you are making work that feels right."

Helen Booth, Repetition, 40x30cm, 2019

Helen Booth, White, 144cmx144cm, 2019
These works can recall the intricate and hypnotic white-on-white paintings of Agnes Martin:

Agnes Martin, Morning, 1965

Booth finds in Martin's Beauty is the Mystery of Life essay, published in 1989, a sort of clarion call for meaningful, if minimal, abstraction: "It is commonly thought that everything that is, can be put into words. But there is a wide range of emotional response that we make that cannot be put into words. We are so used to making these emotional responses that we are not consciously aware of them till they are represented in art work.” 

Like Martin's, Booth’s paintings apply an elemental, monochromatic aesthetic that offers a contemplative visual experience. If Martin goes zen in the chant-like repetition of tiny grid-lines (to state it crudely), Booth taps into the wabi-sabi of the pared-down mark - the point - t and finds it gorgeous with the organic, weathered beauty of imperfection.

It's fascinating to see her imagination zooming in and out in this series as she fully explores the concept. The work feels primal, simple and ordered yet pregnant with chaotic energy. I can imagine her in her studio excitedly saying to herself, "what if..." and "Oh wait, what if..." That's the place of enthusiasm (from en-theos, literally inhabited by the god/muse), a place I think any artist really needs and wants to live in. I'm inspired by her evolution and her bravery in stepping into authenticity.

Finally, here's a cool, short video on the continuing importance of landscape, and Iceland in particular, to her work.

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