Helen Ireland

Helen Ireland

R.F. Do you feel that you are working with an inherited language? Were you also looking at other artists work?

H.I. Yes, I was looking at specimens, animals, and I was also interested in images of bulls. I started working from these quite a lot of the time I noticed that things had started to become like fragments of anatomy somehow. From there I started drawing things, parts of bodies, human anatomy which were very abstract; I didn’t want to be able to name them. It was very, very colourless. At the same time the fragments floated in my paintings.

R.F. How does the actual mark making evolve?

H.I. I’ve got to say that it started from the subject matter in the beginning. Then I started working and seeing the people I was drawn to, seeing the Abstract Expressionist and working with the canvas on the floor, flooding the canvas and seeing what came about through working. Things that were inside coming out naturally–Helen Frankenthaler, and Jackson Pollock paintings were influences at that time.

G.H. So you don’t think it’s a definite subject matter, more a continuous way of working?

H.I. Yes, I think there is a lot of truth in that. Things come out over a long period of time and I don’t necessarily think that it is to do with looking at other art. It’s something I do in the painting. You work at a level where you’re not quite in control of things, your mind working in a semi-conscious state: working for two or three hours and not stopping to look. The following day, coming in to work and picking up on things that occur.

G.H. Do you feel that just using the medium is important, for its own sake?

H.I. Yes, I think it is very important, very important, I prefer oil paint. Something that is wet and very slippery and changeable. Putting something down and being able to change it and take from that and use it. I like the idea of using something that has formed itself.

G.H. What about colour?

H.I. Colour is very important to me. The pieces I am working on are to do with the chalkiness of stone. The specimens I referred to earlier were colourless. After a while I wanted to bring in very bright colour.

G.H. When you set out do you know what you are going to do?

H.I. I work on things for quite a long time. I work on groups of about 5 paintings and sell cheap canvas art at once. I like to give each time to be themselves. They are objects in their own right so I like to line them up and choose what I’m going to do. I can go back to paintings after a few months.

G.H. Do you find it easy to go over things and destroy them?

H.I. If there is quite a large painting and there is small part of it that works you have to take it out in order to carry on painting the whole. It is important to destroy it and try to bring it back in another way–or try and do a study of the piece you like and then destroy it. I think it is virtually impossible to try and paint around an area that is good.

G.H. Do you feel you are communicating with an audience?

H.I. Not intentionally. I am pleased however if I have stimulated or evoked some kind of emotion with the person who is looking at my work.

R.F. It is quite interesting that you have made a definite decision, and it looks like it is long term, to work with what you can’t name.

H.I. People look at my work and if it is figurative they try to manipulate things. I like the idea of remaining anonymous in painting. That may sound very negative–when I look at the work of other abstract painters, I find it much more stimulating because it allows me room. When I am painting, I’m not totally in control and I find it quite exciting and there is room for change. Whereas highly figurative painting I find stifling.

R.F. Why?

H.I. It excludes me as a woman. When I see a female painter who is highly figurative I ask myself–what is she trying to do? I wonder whether she is struggling in a male tradition of painting the nude figure.

R.F. If you are working with your unconscious it leaves you vulnerable–someone can say–you are leaving yourself open …

H.I. I think that there is a certain amount of consciousness when you are painting as you are in control, but it is a different kind of control. When I was at Chelsea we had a lot of macho painters, they were very, very competitive. I did a painting using shapes of holes and slits, they confronted me with obvious associations which I would not confirm or deny. I’ve had a shape like that in my painting for a long time.

R.F. Do you think that men work in a more ego-centred way? Women work with a kind of uncertainty in an environment where they feel vulnerable and they are more likely to incorporate that kind of thing in their work–but this could be quite contentious.

H.I. Well I think that women are more in touch with themselves than men. Many people do actually say that you can distinguish between men and women’s paintings. A tutor once said that, which I could never quite take as a compliment. Art schools, make you think ‘My God! I wish I was a man painting with a feminine side’. I don’t feel I want to be a man, but a male painter would have more opportunity and respect. I feel it is going to take a long, long time for things to change. They say that in women’s paintings there is a circular motion, a womb-like shape–sometimes I think it relates to my work. I like Gillian Ayres paintings, the ones with no corners, I think that was a very good idea. She seems very strong in her ideas, in the way she puts the paint down.

G.H. Yes, large paintings, mark making, is not necessarily attributable to men.

R.F. There should be room for every type of painting and mark making.

H.I. Like Gwen John’s, they are totally the other end of the spectrum to Gillian Ayres. I’ve thought that about trying to do large paintings and trying to act in a certain way–a bit cocky! But it is like role playing and I am just getting round to using my own identity.

G.H. Does literature influence you?

H.I. No I don’t think so.

G.H. Do you title your work?

H.I. That one is called “Sixteen Seeds”, it is literally to do with … the fever in summer. Things are in the air and things are moving and that painting is about things moving but invisible. Other of my paintings have been about breathing. I’m interested in trying to paint what that felt like to be able to sit and breath–I found it difficult to do but I am interested in these ideas. I did a painting of a walk in Yorkshire that I walked with my father and it was very, very green. I wanted to paint about the walk. It was named ‘Yorkshire Air’, it was about an idea I had about walking and taking in the atmosphere. Fountains are important to me. I was interested in the idea of water, something flooding, trickling, being poured, frozen, forms moving and then suddenly being trapped by ice and cold-they are all abstract feelings.

G.H. What other painters are you interested in?

H.I. Helen Frankenthaler; the idea of flooding the canvas with paint and Jackson Pollock. Jennifer Durrant at Chelsea was actually very good for me.

Fortnum, Rebecca^Houghton, Gill