Artist & Writer 2019
Helen Booth (b. 1967, Burton on Trent, UK) graduated with a BA in Painting from Wimbledon School of Art under Prunella Clough and Bernard Cohen in 1989. Her paintings, using traditional mediums such as oil and gesso, explore the themes of thought and memory, possibility, transience, life and death. Her paintings are monochromatic and peacefully coaxing, created using multiple layers of oil paint to draw the eye across multiple planes.
In 2018 Booth endured a total abdominal hysterectomy; an invasive operation after scans revealed a possible sarcoma. The surgery resulted in ten weeks of bed rest and four weeks of waiting. This period of recovery and waiting for what could possibility be terrible news, floored Booth. It brought everything into focus- how important life is and how tenuous our lives are. “I wrote letters to my daughters and partner. I spent days worrying about death - about how short life is and how vital painting is to me”. This sense of absolute duality – Black and White – Life and Death – Love and Death instilled a tangible sense of urgency and time.The results of the operation were all clear and with this came an elation, a second chance – a focus.
The themes of Life and Death that arose from such an experience have led to a flurry of activity in Booths studio. She has produced a body of work over the last year which she considers as her rebirth. In an interview, she explains that the physical demands of painting with a body in recovery was challenging, and that time spent painting afterward had been obsessive and absolute. “There’s nothing quite like fully and fearfully considering ones mortality. It made me realise that I still have important paintings to create”.
Since 2018, Booth has shifted from her geometric formations and moved into a more disparate mark - the dot. The dot can suggest a multitude of things; the end of a sentence, the puncture wound of a stitched scar, the promise of life in an ovum, the multitude of stars and the cells within our bodies. Her use of this simple mark in subtle variants of size and tone reduce and concentrate her work into its purest form.
In Under Your Skin, Helen Booth uses oil and graphite to create seemingly pulsating pores of light on the canvas. This syncopated use of mark is a perfect example of Booths shift in focus. Under Your Skin presents the surge and swell of connections made and erased and blurred - the constant humming murmur of stillness, of waiting, of breathing - of living.
Booth maintains this sense of relentless, subtle motion throughout the entirety of her new body of work. In 1000 Full Stops, she uses specks of white oil paint to present the persistence of thought and language. “These paintings are a way to materialise countless conversations that could have happened but never did. Formulating each full stop and question mark into a physical mark, to make them exist in the world after years of humming inside thoughts of wondering and worrying”.
In February 2019, a year after surgery, Booth visited Iceland- a lifelong ambition and a cathartic experience. The tonal landscape of blue, lilac white snow and black sand, the abstract black flecks or dots on translucent ground that she had been painting in her studio were realised in this outlandish, unfamiliar landscape.
After a year of productivity and determination, travelling and endurance, Booth has been presented two prestigious New York based awards; The Jackson Pollock & Lee Krasner Foundation, and one of the twelve international awards for abstract painting of Adolf and Esther Gottlieb Foundation. Booths process is an emotional response to the paint and canvas not dissimilar to the poured and stained method of application from Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler’s. To have received these awards at this time in her career is a testimony to Booths talent. Her abstract paintings offer a 21st century nod to the American Abstract Expressionists whose foundations have chosen to support her.
In a time of vivid, digital, swipeable, retina display art, Booth requires the viewer to stop and pay attention. Her work discusses and demands time. The simple shapes and muted colours offer an alternative, tangible notion of beauty and reality, while the abstraction forces introspection, with no evident reference to the literal.
After thirty years of painting, Booth is producing work that is securely and confidently her own, discussing experiences and themes that are simultaneously hyper-personal and universal- a liberating ode to the women who are no longer governed by a hormonal cycle that repeats and repeats. Like the surface of her paintings, with their reductionist aesthetic, Booth has distilled her ideas to produce a sophisticated and moving body of work.
NOTES ON RECENT WORK
Artist & Writer 2018
Helen Booth was born in 1967 and spent her early life in the Midlands of England. She graduated with a degree in Painting from The Wimbledon School of Art in 1989 at the age of twenty-one, under Bernard Cohen, Prunella Clough and George Blacklock, and worked part-time as an artist in the film and video industry to fund her studio in London. In 1996 she moved to South West Wales, where she lives and paints full time.
For almost thirty years, the formation and adaptation of memories have been the nucleus of Booth’s expansive archive of oil paintings, prints, etchings and installations. An enduring feature of her work throughout her career is the delicately layered networks of filamentous strokes of paint that cover her canvases. Her recent paintings explore the intangibility and ephemerality of memories through the application of paint in varying patterns and opacities. The lattice motifs are a kaleidoscopic tool to generate surface networks and are an attempt to physically represent an abyss of thought, often acting as a representation of Booth’s personal experiences with, and grasp of, love and loss.
Booth grew up in a matriarchal family, with an absence of male role models. Her work emulates the aesthetic characteristics of traditionally feminine materials and crafts practiced by herself with her female relatives during her youth, such as knitting and crocheting, while simultaneously portraying them in the traditionally male-dominated art form of painting. We Are Unravelling: Portrait of my Grandmother is a prime example of this concept. Here, Booth depicts the fragmentation of her personal family life while concurrently connecting them to her vivid memory of unravelling second-hand jumpers and recycling them into new items of clothing with her Grandmother during the emotionally intense moments of her parents’ separation. The work evokes micro-cosmic insights into Booth’s personal life and the solace provided by creativity, while also celebrating the strong, powerful nature of her own female relationships.
The vehemence of relationships and memory in Helen Booth’s work is emulated in the rapport with her process and materials during creation. The ebb and flow of building up a mark simply to remove it a few days later, leaving a shadow on gesso primed canvas, acts as a physical metaphor to represent the sense of traceable absence similar to the faint mark left by a lost friend or relative. A knowledge and trust in her own process is displayed in the balanced tension of her work as layers of built up, heavy oil paint and gesso rest weightlessly on the canvas. Working on several pieces at any one time, her paintings are constantly in a state of flux up until the last layer of paint is applied, meaning that though each painting ends as a stand-alone piece, it is created while part of a group. This crucial aspect of Booth’s practice results in a body of work that not only compliments itself but reveals more to the viewer over time.
Veneers of visual harmony and regular pattern act as a thematic thread through all of Helen Booth’s work. Attempting to physically embody the breakdown of relationships, Booth uses seemingly pristine surfaces as distractive masks to conceal sombre, dark stimuli. Coty L’aimant: Portrait of My Mother laces a rich, yellow-toned peach over a deep, blue-black that slowly creeps through the light in the foreground. Though Mustard and Custard Are Both F*cking Yellow: Portrait of My Father shares visual likeness to Booth’s Portrait of My Mother, the lines depicted are not linked, but fractured. Her tactful use of subtle visual differences hidden behind thematic titles and colours act as a tool to strengthen the theme of fragmented familiarity, by sensitively tying together her entire body of paintings and drawings.
While simultaneously contradicting and marrying what is said with what is shown, Helen Booth’s recent paintings discuss the adaptation and evolution of relationships. The culmination and embodiment of this notion is manifested in You Forgot What You Said. This contradiction between delicate beauty and aggressively bold line, of freedom and structure, is what makes Helen Booth’s work very much her own. You Forgot What You Said is a visual cacophony, demanding attention with quiet power of colour and confident line. In the painting, she depicts an acceptance in the disintegration of memory in both title and work, and invites us to do the same. Using pastel, cool-toned hues, Booth slowly eases us into considering and embracing age, loss and death.
Somehow firmly planted between the layers of paint is an intangible sense of temporariness and brevity. Her poetic, melodic titles paired with an expertly sensitive use of tough oil-paint produces paintings that distract us from the physical brutality of their creation and stimuli, and lead us to focus on her own (and society’s current) infatuation with beauty. This ferocious brazenness results in a climax of subtle colour and secret confidence that presents itself to the viewer in pensive stages; evoking a peculiar sense of suspension in time and in feeling.
The work of Helen Booth by Alice Mckenna-Jones for Glynn Vivian Gallery Swansea -2018
The witty titles and challenging subject matter of Helen Booth’s paintings meld the enduring pull of personal narratives with traditional Welsh landscape painting. The essence of this clever approach towards abstract painting can be found in Booth’s collection of works on paper.
During the summer of 2018, cafes, galleries and educational institutions across Swansea were host to the annual BEEP( Biennial exhibition of Painting) arts festival. The central painting competition, hosted by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, gave contemporary painters the opportunity to network with an international audience, as well as to win the attention of Swansea art galleries. For the first time the Friends decided to award a prize to an artist living and working in Wales, which was given to Helen Booth, for her paintings Walking on Thin Ice(2016) and Yours or Mine (2017).
Since the import of Abstract Art in the 1950s, artists working in this genre have struggled to find a place amongst astutely regarded British Painters (the likes of Lucien Freud or Francis Bacon, for example). An exhibition in the National Museum Cardiff a few years back explored the unique circumstances of Abstract Art in Wales, placing particular emphasis upon the impact of the ’56 Group in its role of encouraging the Arts Council to recognize the tangibility between landscape painting and abstraction. Booth’s work sits at the forefront of the continued appeal of this tradition in Wales.
While the influence by her formative years as a student under Bernard Cohen underpins the stylistic approach of her work, Booth’s oeuvre alters between two extremes: on the one hand, she is drawn towards creating abstract compositions made up of heavy line work which verges on aligning to a grid. Behind this guard of abstraction, Booth feels more comfortable addressing the underlying tensions that otherwise haunt her personal relationships. At other points in her career, Booth has been equally interested in drawing direct influence from the immediate environment that surrounds her (namely, the dramatic scenery of Llangrannog cliffs or the Preseli mountains). The work produced under the influence of the latter demonstrates a more spontaneous approach towards the application of paint. There is strength in the melding together of these two styles, the essence of which can be found in her work on paper.
Booth could not have prepared for the intense period of isolation that followed after her two daughters left home for university. The experience inspired her to create an impulsive outburst of abstract compositions made up of several knots of withered black lines, which take the form of wax drippings thrown onto thickly layered paper. The title of the series, I can feel them moving away from me, refers to the painful process the artist undertook of re-evaluating the maternal role that had previously contributed towards her sense of identity. Earthly and dust-like, the quality of Booth’s line work is evocative of the void of memories she shares with her two daughters. Within the distance of thirty square centimetres, the artist has found a space in which to re-imagine the evolving nature of these transient memories. The act of spontaneously attacking the paper with hot wax is an attempt to draw logical conclusions from their shared experiences together.
I can feel them moving away from me draws upon a long tradition of artists who have attempted to address the unique mother-and-child relationship (e.g., Louise Bourgeois’ Triptych for the Red Room, 1994). Booth’s emphasis on the spontaneous, personal reaction towards this event is a deliberate departure from the religious representations of this tradition, typically depicted through a figurative lens. This conceptual leap into the Existentialist school of thought regarding the importance of the individual’s experiences reinstates the impact of this doctrine upon the movement of Abstract art as a whole.
The bleak abstractions of Booth’s emotional torment, which border on masquerading as ghostly imitations of the Welsh landscape, allow for the convoluted ideas entailed within the image-making processes to interact with fluidity and transience. Paired with her playful approach towards imagining uniquely amusing titles for each artwork, Booth’s dexterous manipulation of traditional mediums clears the way for the continuous evolution of Abstract art in Wales.
Helen Booth’s work haunts the observer with a meditativeness that teeters on the edge of the void. Beauty resonates and pervades, but there’s a melancholy in the cool colours, a sense of alienation between the points of light and dark burrs. What’s special is her assured rhythms and her unsentimentality, but it is the ubiquitous motile threads that pulls us back from the brink and balances the work with such rare, ludic and dramatic promise.
Elizabeth Ashworth 2015