Helen O’Leary‘s sculptural paintings are delicate and rough, subtle and raw, literal and metaphoric – they embrace and prick the viewer at the same time. Her current exhibition “Home is a foreign country“ at Leslie Heller indicates not only clear incisiveness and impressive mastery of form, but also a deep generosity- sharing with the viewer her rigorous process of grappling with material: visible jointing, disjointing, bending, folding, knitting. She says that somewhere through the struggle some magic happens. And magic does happen in her artwork.
AS: I love the list of ideas you shared in Sharon Butler’s Two Coats of Paint post back in 2014. It was related to “The Geometry of Dirt,” your solo exhibition at the Irish Arts Center. I am curious to revisit three points you raised there: ”language,” “protest,” and “lament.” Let’s start with language. You mention poems by Michael Harnett and Vona Goake as well as some of Becket’s poetic prose as influences on your work. Can you tell me more how literature informs your visual world?
Helen O’ Leary: Culture is often kept safe by emigrants through song and rhyme. For me it was poetry, story, and literature. I would reach for it when I lived in central PA – my library became my portable Ireland. Each summer I would go home to Leitrm, and come back with a suitcase of books: Hartnett, Longely, Carson, Heaney, Mc Cabe, Groake, Ni Dhomhnaill, Meehan. An entire room in my house was dedicated to Irish writing.
I brought to the studio the use of language (the play with it), and also an ear that was close to the ground – the everyday living where I grew up. As a student, Joyce was someone I kept close -how he took the language of the oppressor and served it back almost unintelligible through the vernacular rhyme and tongue of Ireland. There is pragmatism and a magic in the stories I grew up with. They galvanize my practice – you can see history in Irish language, you can trace words back to ancient definitions or texts.
AS: At this tumultuous moment of major environmental and geo-political shifts, how do you see your work and your role as an artist in relation to “protest” and “lament”?
Helen O’ Leary: Like everyone else I know, current events here and across the world are throwing me sideways. The election hit hard, I felt I had not only chosen to live in a country that was heading towards fundamentalism and fascism, I had somehow irreversibly knit myself into the fabric of this culture through family, friends and my daughter Eva. My first instinct was to flee home, but the question of where home might be is my eternal question. Eva is here and staunchly American, and my community and family are very much here too. It reawakened every heart ache I have known. The political tumult coincided with my health going haywire, and everything evil seemed too close for comfort, ‘good’ seemed more fragile than ever. Exterior and interior worlds seemed equally mysterious, sinister, and dark.
Painting for me has always been like digging out of prison with a spoon. Each cumulative small gesture is adding up to an act of resistance and expression. For me the convoluted making and re-making, editing and revising, are processes that take out the extra, that brings things down to the nub of it all.
I have been drawn into more interior spaces and think about boundaries and borders more than I have done in a long while. Safety and ‘safe houses’ are in my head. I’m looking at things that rely on each other for support, small gestures that add up to epic acts.
I wanted a different kind of smallness/compression in the work. I also found myself breaking things up more and cutting the supports off of things. I wanted the support to be solid, yet precarious, and I wanted the materiality of the work to be breathable. Varnish or any sort of ‘finish’ was removed, and I began to think of supports as entrapment and would saw them off with almost a visceral disregard for all the work that it had taken to build them.
AS: At the broadest level, your work for me integrates visceral materiality with uplifting soul in the most organic way. You quoted Michael Harnett’s poem, “A Small Farm,” where he says at the opening:
All the perversions of the soul
I learnt on a small farm.
You apparently do not shy away from the notion of “soul” in art. What are your thoughts there?
Helen O’Leary: Tenderness, kindness and history, that’s what I am thinking about these days. I look to poetry more than ever. I see a human understanding in it that is not present in the political or commercial interactions. I want things to feel dug up, plain, exposed, self-reliant, and somehow very free in the world.
I wear a medal around my neck, a close friend gave it to me when I left Ireland one summer. It’s a relic, some sort of religious thing, and in my heart it protects me. It holds the whole history and fighting spirit of Ireland in its tarnished tin smallness. I never take it off, and when I do, I insist that it is kept safe and in my vision.
I want to make paintings that have the capacity to hold that sort of history, power, tenderness, understanding, care and personal meaning in their surface and materials. I’m thinking of things that can fold up and make themselves smaller – like hermit crabs, hedgehogs, reliquaries, or wall papering tables. I’m thinking of things that have been shrunken, like heads, relics, that once had big and grand lives. I think in parts, and when I dismantle things, I place them evenly on the table, like parts of something that might be put back together.
AS: The other part of that poem relates closely to your biography – you grew up in rural Ireland in the 60s and 70s. In your Guggenheim application you wrote that your mother’s philosophy was “if you can’t make it, you can’t have it.” Your use of raw material manifests that. Can you elaborate?
Helen O’ Leary: I do have a visceral relationship with materials – paint, wood, paper, linen, cloth. I like things to be what they are, and not heavily altered or disguised. I look at how things are made: where joints meet, what’s underneath, and what supports them are metaphors for how we live and what power structures are around us – what fails us, and what ultimately saves us. I like to pull painting apart.
For instance, in the new work at Lesley Heller right now, I have a variety of materials from silver-pointed shelves, polymer and pigment, egg tempera and oil on linen, and chalk. I wanted each piece to be a different part of the ‘poem’-the silver point shelves are minimal paintings on their sides, the sticks somewhere between weapons and supports, and the flat planes that are sometimes painted with egg tempera, sagging into themselves.
AS: The photos I have seen of your work in process at the studio make me think of sublime chaos – they are most stimulating.
Helen O’ Leary: I’ve been on the road so much these last two years. It has been an odd time – I’ve been on the run from Trump’s America. I spent the time making and unraveling – the work got rawer and eventually splinted into re-worked things at the same time.
There is no routine and no place that is home here. I seem to have been living out of suitcases and boxes as I have shifted around the U.S, Ireland, and Italy. I wanted to be around people who make things, who write and compose things. I wanted to be surrounded by the magic that we as a community insist upon, and I was lucky enough to go to several extra-ordinary residencies here in the US and Italy. All this moving has been good for the work. It nourished my soul, but is exhausting on me physically.
My notion of the provisional is definitely getting tested – on the weekends I flush out the studio in Penn State University wood shop (where I teach) and have been living between the barn (where I live) and office for what feels like forever. It’s good – it has given me a new sense of impermanence, yet I am ready for it to be over.
AS: Can you tell me more about your work process?
Helen O’ Leary: I go routinely to the Metropolitan Museum, it holds everything I need. There I look to the ancient, and the necessity of beauty for the most practical of objects, especially the objects that are now a mystery to us. I usually know what I am looking for before I go – a vessel or a dove tailed box from Egypt, icon panels, a bit of something, and branch out from there. I collect recipe books for paint and scroll through ancient ‘instructions’ on how to paint.
When I get to the studio, there is no place for certainty, yesterday’s decisions are invariably disassembled. I put things together, things that can’t really fit – awkward bed fellows dismantled and re-made until I make it work. I bend, fold, I knit with wood, and somewhere, through the difficulty of joining things, some magic happens. Insistence is something I think about – rounding out bulges and harsh lines. I think of my body in relationship to each object, and the precision of an emotion or a personality that I am trying to find.
Most of it was just being awake to life, and not feeling defeated. Ever. I string small bits of hope together and keep going. It’s Like Beckett, or maybe most of our mothers.
AS: What are you working on now?
Helen O’ Leary: I just installed the show “Home is a foreign country” at Lesley Heller NY and have a show opening at the Bangor Museum of Art Maine in May. I have a show opening in Ireland in May, which is a bit of a pinnacle for me, it feels like a return and a going home of sorts. I will spend the summer at my house in Leitrim, Ireland, and I look forward to walking the small roads learning every flower stone and stray word by heart.
In September I head to Rome, I feel very lucky to be able to spend the year at the American Academy. It barely feels real yet, it is a dream come true.
AS: You said at the time that your recent work delves into your own history as a painter, rooting in the failures of your own studio. I would love to know more about that.
Helen O’ Leary: I keep everything, every cut off. I’m as interested in the discarded as in the ‘successes’. I am always searching for the ‘back story’ or the thing behind the scenes. The provisional and uncertainty continue to be the reliable facts of my world.