Helen Beard is 48, and paints since her art studies at the University of Bournemouth (UAB). She’s been working in the film industry (sets and costumes). She did not show her paintings that much, and she also declares that she was a bit shy to do so. But she became very visible when the artist Damian Hirst discovered her work on Snapchat (!). Rapidly, he invited her to his curatorial exhibition in 2017. Her current show is at Unit Galery, London. Alright. Let us start with something soft.
It’s quite unbelievable to feel alive and strong when one “discovers” a beautiful painting !, some « bel art » ! I am subjugated by Helen Beard’s œuvre. And we might exclaim : ‘At last !’, a woman grabs sexuality and does with it something else than voyeurism, fuss and porn — even if the primary material comes from the pornographic industry, and especially the filmography of Erika Lust, who is engaged in the feminization of pornographic films —, and that is a paradox, that Beard nourrishes her art with such raw materials, and do not fell into pornography ! And that is also why Beard paints some “scènes de genre”. She assumes to be a feminist, and aims at depicting a joyful, living, colored sexuality, made of pleasure and fun, without anything sordid in it ; with, as a target, not the exploitation, but the sharing. And this, finally, amounts to Love.
Surely it was needed that a woman, one day, would took hold on this subject, in order to obtain such a flagrant result. The image above shows what it shows ; but is it tautological, such as the usual porno stuff or, say, the ‘kama sutra’ of Jeff Koons ? Nope. Nothing in common. Of course, we all know that sex is fascinating. For one (‘Syntribation’ up above), look at the place where we find what we suppose to be a vulva. It is a ‘gapped’ vulva; which zooms to the canvas ! It’s a Fontana vulva.
This body is not anatomically orthodox (the too thin waist, which goes far from the hip), but this is not the subject, or it is : Beard covers the tracks of representation, which sets up an effect that I would call a ‘cantilever effect’. She shows some paint, and denotes a sexual body. She does both. She doesn’t want the paint as material to be ignored (as a proof, the multiple fingermarks on the canvas, visible and left intentionally); and, at the same time, Beard comes close to illusionism. (For a counter-example, think about Basquiat : We plainly see the paint and the gesture, but he doesn’t reach illusionism — that’s not his point). Hence, in some ways, one has to choose, as in quantum theory, which aspect he wishes to focus on, at one moment. Let reminds the reader that Light is an electromagnetic sinusoidal wave, which can be observed under its ondulatory or its particle form; but that is impossible to observe both states at the exact same ‘time’. And this is quite different in the non-quantic world. So, as a visual metonymy, we cannot see at the same time the paint and the iconological representation in the sexual serie of Beard. Hence the question is : Are we here into representation or depiction ? At first, I think, that everybody recognizes what it’s about : A woman in part, shown down below, from foot to the right armpit. But to proceed to this identification, this recognition, we pass over standard cognitive processes (of which we should be used to since… 100 years). When we glance at a dysmorphic body such as one from Picasso, we admit that it’s about a woman :
although it is quite impossbile to recognize a female body… Rather, it looks like some kind of quadruped, positioned in a perspective such that we do not see the other legs ! However, once again, we accept to see here a woman. I must confess that the deep reasons for which we translate thus these mental operations are unknown to me (I must not be the only one…).
But let us go back to our principal object (Beard’s painting) and, for the time being, to ‘Syntribation’. May we proceed ? First, a precision : The word ‘syntribation’ means the practice, for a woman, to provoke a clitoridian orgasm by the rubbing of the thighs — it is not about masturbation, since the latter is done with the hands (masturbation come from the Latin word ‘manus’, i.e., ‘hand’). There ! A pair of bare legs, seeming totally relaxed, indeed syntribates. Incredible ! Especially for us, men, who cannot put into practice this kind of pleasure. This is unknown territory. And this picture is then a manner, both sensual and subversive, to show what women can do by themselves. This is not revolution, but it is a way to assert sexual power. Let us pursue. There is, in Beard, a patent joy of painting, and an absolute pleasure in expressing color. What Beard offers us to see does not cease to makes me wonder and questioning. Why is this woman multicolored ? Because we are in paint. First things first : It’s about painting. Yes, but is this enough ? No. Because Beard does not only want to paint simpliciter, she also intends to communicate, on sexuality, on beauty, on nature, and so forth. She regrets and deplores the British puritanism, which refrains from teaching earlier about sex, and advocates for the Scandinavian educational approach, which is less neurotic. But there is so much work to be done ! Are we still not used to hear that sex is “dirty” ? A good deal of insults would not come from the genitals and buttocks, by the way ? And think about the scandal which erupts everytime a woman shows a tit on TV… What a buzz ! And extremely soon this very tit will be hidden or blurred, because, indeed, it is so rude… Yet, a topless mal on the same TV show will not make a scandal…
Digression///A painter, friend of mine, told me that Beard’s paintings is « déjà-vu », especially with Emanuel Proweller (1918/1981). I look on the Internet, and if we can see some similarities, I realize at once that it does not come from the same mould. Here below a reproduction of a painting by Proweller :
So let us compare ! –1 The Proweller’s body is totally asexual, and we could see here a residue of a Malevitchian figurative period (think about the ‘Complex Presentiment : Half-Figure in a Yellow Shirt’, 1930, of which the morphological clothing is quite akin to the Prowellerian body). Of course we understand that it is about a female body, but the flat-paint enhance the asexual aspect (just like with Adami, or Fromanger, for example). The position of the body and the environement have some metaphysical aspect (à la De Chirico). The result : This body is flat, and the limbs seem to fit together like those of an old « haute couture » dummy. It is clumsy. And then, to finish this : What is this enormous red tuft, which seem to transform the head of the woman into some kind of a huge float, or sucker ? +1 The Beardian body is absolutely sexual. In the triple sense of the term : We see the site of a vulva, and the body syntribates. Although that from afar we might thing that we’re dealing here with flat-paint, but those are not : Beard is painting also whith her fingers ! And this increases the level of lecture — we’ve reached the third one actually (let us remind the medieval-biblical quadri-level of reading : literal-allegorical-anagogical-mystical, which has not completely disappeared from our unconscious minded screen) : Here the body is literally an allegory of the loving pleasure, it is knead, build and loved by some gestures, i.e., hands (and of course though sexual organs, but it seems quite obvious that, while we’re making love, the hands cover more surfaces and places than the sexual organs, aren’t they ? To put an end to this digression, I see much more life in the Beardian body than in Proweller’s. But this does not mean condemnation nor a major default. These are just different periods of time.
Let us go down to business
Can we write something about that ? A sexual penetration. A close-up. Some colors. Have we already seen The Sex represented as such ? If we compare — for instance —, with the photographies of Betty Tompkins , which show big close-ups of sex and penetration, the judgment goes quick : There is no way to proceed further. There is not any artistic value in hers ; even the anterior drawings about the same subject did not have any interest either (here). Anything else ? We cannot escape the comparison with Jeff Koons, mating with the Cicciolina (Ilona Staller), his former wife. What about the artistic value ? Null. Scandal effect : 100 %. If the reader is aware of something akin to the artistic work of Helen Beard, I buy it.
What is good with art, is that we cannot get involved with frontality. In itself, the photography of a phallus penetrating a vagina does not bear any interest. And this is exactly where Beard is surprising us. The way she composes and lays out the colors (I would like to find a term to conceptualize this way of doing), disturbs the attention. Now we visualize the image of a sexual penetration, and now our eyes run on the painted surface. Yet, as soon as our eyes travel the surface, the subject dissolves into paint. If this is not art, I don’t know what it is (as the well-known formula goes). And so we have once more the clue that Art is not concerned with Representation, but with Depiction. This is the very reason why Tompkins and Koons photos represent only, they cannot give a way out to the ‘subject’. Indeed, they are alienated. Yet, the more I stare at the reproduction above (‘Big Night in’), and I realize that the more than slightly acid paintings of Beard appear like candies ; we feel like eating them ! Eating the paint : the supreme manducation of the painter sublimation ! The painting of Beard bears all the appearances of a NAKED LUNCH. We are invited to feast into the paint, to lick each other’s lips, to caress and to bite the flesh ; to put the tongue into the slit, and to swallow this sex, in both time.