Silent Charmers: Aly Helyer @ The Cabin, LA
"The characters in my work don’t exist in the real world, they are not living individuals,"Aly Helyer tells Juxtapoz. "They are informed by the world around me, art history, magazines, a variety of sources really." After showing in solo and group exhibitions around London since the mid-1990s, London-based painter Aly Helyer is finally getting recognition abroad, and her current solo exhibition at The Cabin in LA feels like a culmination of all her talents as a painter. Comprising of some 20ish portraits on canvas and panel, the intimate presentation provides a great insight into her practice that relies on form and color through the reinvention of a traditional format.
"I just start composing, usually in a small Moleskine sketchbook," the artist explained to us the initial part of her process. "I tend to start with an eye or a mouth that acts as an anchor. I like drawing and painting at night because there’s stillness and my brain slows down and it's easier to empty one's thoughts." Aiming to paint a figure that is "believable, that they could exist, that they have a presence and could answer back," their construction is all about "balance, tension, and moving across the paper."
"It feels very much like I’m working on a puzzle, but I have no idea what the answer will be," Helyer explained to us the drive that pushes her to keep exploring in this manner. "This is both exciting and frightening, as it always feels like it's the first time I’ve made a drawing in this way. Things just start to grow and gradually click into place and this person emerges who I feel has always been there." And the result of such an honest and intuitive process in which the interplay between color, figure, and patterns has a crucial role, are renditions of seemingly disconnected figures, often lost in their own thoughts. With regularly warped, exaggerated proportions, multiplied or missing features, the work is more about the painterly qualities, the bold strokes, and a vibrant, expressive color palette, rather than the conventional portraiture qualities.
"Looking back it was a very surreal time, I have had uncertainty in my life before, but not on this scale," the artist tells us about how the plans for this presentation kept changing. "I had a crazy wonderful message around 6 am in the morning from Danny saying let’s still do the show anyway! So lockdown became even more surreal for me." Originally set to take part in La Brea Artist Residency program earlier this year, the artist agreed with Danny First, an artist, collector, and the owner of the Cabin & The La Brea studio, to stay in London and work from her studio instead. This decision likely informed the way that paintings are continuing onto her previous body of work, but are also marking a certain departure in terms of scale. "I’d had a conversation over a year ago with a friend about making large scale portraits and I thought to myself now is the time to do this," Helyer told us about the decision to tackle the large scale format for this presentation. "Going bigger is more demanding, it requires complete focus and is also tiring physically. This total emersion in the work helped me stay grounded during this time. I'm always happiest in my studio, lockdown has just made me even more aware of this and how lucky I am to have painting in my life to sustain me."
Realizing this and experiencing such a recognition decades after earning the MA in Painting at the Chelsea College of Art & Design isn't your typical trajectory and this makes Helyer's work only that much more interesting. "The timing is good as I am the most excited and involved in my work than I've ever been," she told us about such a "delayed" response to her work. "I can’t wait to get into the studio. It's nice to see the work go off and being seen by a wider audience too, seems even more poignant as we all have to stay at home." With a traditional education background and attention to the techniques and skills favored by art history, Helyer has built her visual language with depth and compositional references borrowed from Renaissance and Medieval art and Romantic Expressive aesthetics. Such influence of art history cannons along with an urge to step into the unknown and liberate her practice from those same guidelines steer Helyer towards developing refreshing visuals in which every element is subject to technical reinvention and expressive reinterpretation. —Sasha Bogojev