Friday, October 9, 2015

Helen O'Leary: Between moments of certainty

HELEN O'LEARY  Short Shift, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    17 x 12 x 5"
"Delicate Negotiations" Helen O'Leary at Lesley Heller Workspace (through October 18)
The notion that there are numerous layers of meaning beyond what we initially see is nothing new. Whether it is literature, music, choreography or visual arts, the complexity of our experiences is the very thing that makes the arts so rewarding. The work of Helen O'Leary embodies a multiplicity of meanings and does so with unassuming power. Combining both painting and sculpture, O'Leary's work evidences purposefulness as well as deep emotion, drawing on her life as an artist, as well as her personal narrative.

"I locate my work between the moments of material and emotional certainty..." (Helen O'Leary, Studio Critical interview, September 2012)

At first glance, O'Leary's wall paintings appear to be painted over thin remnants of metal or cardboard that have been folded, partially flattened, and then attached to a support. The edges of the paintings are irregular and ragged, as if cut from something larger, and the surfaces are punctuated here and there by small holes. The matte surfaces are generally painted in a muted palette (although several pieces have a luscious ceramic-like luster). Small sections of the armature are visible on several of these paintings, enlivening the shadows on the wall. There is a quiet completeness to these paintings, and also a sense of mystery. However, the front face of these paintings, with its small valleys, shadows, and perforations, obscures a more complex story.

HELEN O'LEARY  Holdout, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    14 x 20 x 5"

Since several paintings rest on pedestals, we can see both the fronts and backs, revealing another part of O'Leary's narrative. She begins by constructing a thin wooden slab as a support for each painting --  gluing and patching together fragments of studio detritus to create an armature. And it is only by seeing the backs of these paintings --  the support --  that we come to understand more of her intentions. Not only does each painting contain a history that incorporates physical remnants from O'Leary's past, she very deliberately shares it with us. 

HELEN O'LEARY  The Measurement of All Things, 2013-15    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    13 x 10 x 2"

The Measurement of All Things, 2013-15  (detail of back)
HELEN O'LEARY  The Business of Kindness, 2014    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    9.5 x 14 x 2"

The Business of Kindness, 2014    (back view)

For several of the largest pieces, the patched wood surface remains in full view, rather than having  been concealed and smoothed out under a painted surface. Unlike the austerity of the smaller works, here we see the messiness and energy with which O'Leary attacks the making of the work --  the busyness of patched, glued and painted fragments. In these pieces, the emotional pitch has been ratcheted up to a feverish energy.

HELEN O'LEARY  Delicate Negotiations, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    68 x 48 x 10"

Delicate Negotiations, 2015   (detail)

Several pieces enter yet another realm -- the patched surfaces are still evident, but are partially obscured by paint. The concealment seems to suggest a quiet desperation to contain the energy of the making.

HELEN O'LEARY  Efficiency of Love, 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    56 x 43 x 5"

HELEN O'LEARY  A Measurement for Happiness, 2013   Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    19 x 11 x 5.5"

The exhibit also includes several sculptures constructed into wobbly open networks using fragments of wood (more studio history) that have been joined and glued together. They share a sense of urgency and compressed energy that contrast with the calm of the smallest paintings.

HELEN O'LEARY  The Exactitude of Everything, 2013   Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    24 x 20 x 7.5"

HELEN O'LEARY  Quarantine 2 (after Eavan Boland) 2015    Egg tempera, oil emulsion, on constructed wood    110 x 72 x 14"

O'Leary's work is at once serene and meticulously worked, while filled with an insistent energy and edginess. What remains is the inevitability of uncertainty.
Gorky's Granddaughter interview with Helen O'Leary, September 2015 


  1. Thank you for introducing me to this artist. The work is fascinating, especially in its contrasts.

  2. These works are fabulous. They can be viewed and enjoyed on many levels.