Precipice – New Paintings
Essay by Christopher Hodges
In 1988 Helen Eager had a residency at the Australia Council's studio on Greene Street in New York. Up until this time the main body of her work had featured chairs, teacups, tables and basically domestic objects in interior settings. This gave Eager free reign to develop her real subject of light, colour and the senses while allowing her audience a comfortable seat for the journey.
But in this new studio with its tall walls and big spaces Eager began to expand. The first drawing she did was of the studio/apartment. It was about 3 x 2 meters and encompassed the whole room with New York light diffusing into the space and illuminating the interior. Over the next few months this overall view took focus as a series of large drawings zeroed in on the window of the apartment partially obstructed by the corner of a lounge. Although to the viewer, able to see the whole development, this was an obvious conclusion. In isolation, this bold image was to confront and challenge most of Eager's audience.
Geoffrey Legge once wrote about ‘ the temporarily absent occupant' in Eager's art. He felt that her paintings, drawings and prints looked as if the occupant had just stepped out of the picture for a moment and would be back soon. However, as Eager zoomed in on this rectangle of a window, obstructed by a rectangle of furniture, it was not only the occupant that had stepped out, it was in fact the whole scene, and for some, this leaving was too much to bear. Eager's work was now abstract and people wanted the chairs back.
Eager on the other hand had discovered in this new work the next logical step into a space where the light and colour and feeling that has always been her subject was able to attain a new level of intensity. This expansion was a liberating experience for the artist and those who cannot understand this can blame it on New York.
Take a rectangular canvas placed with the longer edge horizontal. Divide it into two vertical rectangles by placing a dividing line off centre. Now draw a line from just above the bottom of one of the sides and project an angled line towards the top centre (approx.). Using a triangular template with a fixed apex to form a point and take the line down to the central line (near the bottom). From this point draw another line up towards the top centre as before and using the angled template draw the line down to touch the near bottom right. I understand a yellow conte pencil is used.
Repeat the same on three canvasses, small, medium and large formats (I have seen a couple in very small formats).
Each set of three canvasses is all to be painted in the same colours. The small canvasses are first. The paint application is to be a smooth hand made surface that is even and thin enough for several layers to remain translucent and vibrant. Colour choices optional.
For those familiar with Eager's work over the last decade or so there will only be the usual incremental development one expects of a mature artist in this latest body of work. Of course the reductive nature of a decade ago has firmed into truly non- objective abstraction. The differences are subtle, and like much reduced abstract art that is not accompanied by manifesto, these paintings require a time to let themselves exert their strength. This is time rewarded though because it is easy to not see the subtleties that make these paintings work. What one sees first is two basically triangular shapes projecting into two equal rectangular spaces. This apparent symmetry is beguiling as the tension created by the simplicity of four zones of colour is due to the fact that the only equal thing in the whole construct is the number of degrees in the angle at apex of the two forms. It is the non-symmetry that is one of the forces in activating these paintings.
The other is the apparently simple method in which the zones are painted and it is here we see the artist's deft hand at work. Not only is the colour of each zone developed with multiple fine layers of evenly applied paint. The layers themselves are hand worked, often with great difficulty, to create what appears to be a simple flat layer of colour. Yet the layers are not allowed to be flat as they maintain an intensity that depends on light still being able to penetrate the paint layer, bounce off the white of the canvas and re-emerge as vivid intense light. They do. The edges too are similarly hand crafted and the almost merging of colour on this soft yet strong edge creates another element that allows the coloured forms to breathe. They are at once in the act of union and separation. The choice of colours appears to have no sequence but despite sometimes awkward and idiosyncratic combinations the affect of the whole is to create a picture plane that makes its own light via the competing and complimentary forces of colour.
In the previous body of work Edge, Eager used two canvasses which were painted separately and then joined edge to edge for exhibition as one work. These latest works are painted on the one picture plane and the dividing line is now in Eager's terms a Precipice . This division is a knife's edge and the emotive shift of colours across that line and between the two forms is immediate. This is especially strong where the two triangular forms and the central dividing line meet brings all four colours into dynamic tension. The idea of the edge, the brink, the precipice are all convenient ways of naming a series but not defining a subject in a way that will give the paintings a literal interpretation. It is interesting in that in the past Eager has often used lines taken from poems to give an emotive but not descriptive title. With Precipice we get the sense of the search for purer painting having a steeper challenge.
When we look at the three canvasses as a group it is soon apparent that they are not the same. Each one, although very similar, is not a clone. This sense of repetition with individual identity relates to Eager's love of printmaking and indeed this follows in the layering of thinly applied colour layers to build up to the final colour. The variation between works Eager defines as the moment . Though following the same processes each work must find its own identity and it is in this moment that the painting is alive. Just as when the curtains around a window filled with unseen air, in early work, so Eager's sets of three double triangles need that air to fill with life. Eager, with subtle brushwork and masterful construction, has found the forces to make moments happen.
Eager too is on a precipice, the point at which one who has taken their own path and is about to reveal it to the world in this new solo exhibition. This is the hardest part for an artist who is pursuing a singular path. No doubt there will be some that will fail to really look at the new work and wish that the triangles would simply morph into a designer lounge ready for occupation. Sadly for them, Eager has just been to New York again.
© C. Hodges 2003