Helen Eager

Colour and Light

24 March - 28 April 2012

exhibition essay

Helen Eager: Beyond the Image

By Chloe Watson

Helen Eager’s oeuvre reveals a remarkable artistic journey – from a table, a chair, a sofa before an open window, to an equilateral triangle repeated in chains against white. In moving into and then beyond the image, Eager has reached a geometric simplicity that allows for endless variation and infinite complexity. The spaces Eager has continued to discover are the product of an artist who delights in her task – the simple act of putting pencil to paper, ink to stone or paint to canvas. Rather than rejecting representation or striving towards a purer form of art, Eager’s current abstraction has provided her with a new language through which sensation may be evoked. The viewer of her art is transported into a world where colour and light reign supreme.

The subject of Eager’s early work was always her immediate surroundings and the objects they contained – bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, wardrobe, table, chair. Whether in large-scale drawings and paintings or in smaller prints, Eager composed intimate views of spaces occupied but temporarily absent. The viewer was invited into the work, to wander amongst the odd angles and teetering objects of another’s life. These scenes were an inexhaustible subject, as there was always another way of framing a particular view, there were always things moving around, or changing in shifting light, and Eager herself was often moving, from her family home to share houses, and between studios.

Even in these early works, we can see interiors that tilt towards abstraction, flirting with the geometric forms to come – the light of a lamp on a table within a dark room cuts angular lines into the surrounding space; a chair in a room’s corner becomes a play of perpendiculars and parallels, the acute and the obtuse. The tessellating surfaces of wall and window, carpet and door were a platform for exploration – of the relationships between colours, of patterns in wallpapers, real and imagined, of forms made solid by the light slanting in from a window or open door.

Gradually, compositions became more and more focussed on single objects, or on narrow close up views. As Eager understands it, objects “started getting bigger and bigger, and I focused in to corners where the light shines off a teapot or a piece of furniture... then there was a point where the image dissolved and it became a thing; something in its own right.” Eager’s 1988 stint at the Australia Council studio in New York certainly played a crucial role in this evolution, although in the year preceding this trip Eager had already begun to produce abstracted close-up pictures of teapot tops and cup handles. These works were becoming less and less about the objects and more and more about the shapes that these objects were composed of, and the painterly fields these light-filled surfaces translated into.

The space of the New York studio, and the ease with which Eager could access large rolls of good paper, allowed her to expand in scale, at the same time bringing her ever closer to the thing she was representing – to the various views provided by the space around her and the objects it contained. She wanted to give the sensation in her paintings of this close vision she was experiencing as she worked, of things so close that they became nothing but “a series of lines and colour”.

In particular, Eager made countless drawings of the window of her Greene Street studio. She became fascinated with the light it emitted, and the effect this had on the objects caught in its frame:

New York does have a different light to Sydney light, even in winter you can have this really bright – but not colourful – intense light. So that’s what I was thinking about there, sort of the white out of it. And when you’re in a darkened room and you look out into something bright, everything looks dark inside… If you’ve got that really intense light behind something you get silhouettes, but then you also get those little licks of colour.

In ‘I Do Not Want To Simplify’ 1990, produced upon Eager’s return to Sydney, the edges of objects seem to be carved in light, highlighted with creamy yellow contours. Against the white light of the window, the jutting corner of a sofa and the curving line of a heater have almost departed from themselves, becoming shadowy form alone. Their surfaces are rendered in richly textured fields of layered oil stick; tangled colours jostle for space. In ‘New York Sunday - Snow’ 1990, the dark maroon form of a lampshade, its edges picked out in a lighter red, reaches out into the almost-white space of the canvas, where the faint traces of the window frame emerge as smudges from a dark under-layer - an image about to dissolve into pure light.

It was a simple translation from shadowy forms dividing the space beyond a window, to a picture plane divided into four rectangular forms. Standing before her oil painting ‘N.Y. Series Red/Yellow’ Eager remarks, ‘I look at it and it reminds me of New York, the shape in front of a window.’ Whilst still working through that image, this work presents an imagined space within which the geometric tension of intense red against deep black against caustic yellow evokes the sensation of sight without specifying its location. The richness of the colour is immersive. The lines carry their own narratives. In the language of non-objective abstraction Eager had discovered, the light remains – in the remembrance of that lucidity of form, the animated edges created by light cast from an open window, and in the colours produced by light almost filtering through opaque objects – colours open now to endless variation as the last link to representation was severed.

Within this new language, of pure line and pure colour, forms worked themselves through and led to new compositions. Eager’s pictures seemed to follow a self-perpetuating trajectory of formal exploration; planes divided into four rectangles were next divided into three and then into two; surfaces were worked in oils and pastels, print and pencil; vibrant blues were placed against acid greens against muted browns against charcoal greys. Eager says with a smile: “I like to challenge a medium.” She also likes to give every colour, every texture a chance:

When I do my paintings I have to do one in red and green and blue and yellow, I can’t leave any alone… You always have those browns and those irky colours – but I use them, I make sure I use them as well. And then you get different relationships between different colours. I just love it, I love using colour. I love to pick up a red pencil and work out what I’m going to do with it – with an orange or green or yellow or black.

In Eager’s pastels from this period, surfaces are scrawled and the texture of the paper is picked up in the grain of the medium. Their feel is softer, the edges less severe. In the large scale oil canvas ‘Connections – Litoral’ of 1996, we find the same expressive and painterly technique Eager employed in paintings such as ‘Giotto’ within the angular form of a teapot top. Here, paint has been flung across the canvas using a syringe, the process repeated over multiple layers. Gestural splashes repeated create a tantalizing depth, its effect amplified by the vast scale of the work.

Through constant creation in multiple mediums and in every colour possible, Eager works through a series until she feels she has exhausted its possibilities. Often she begins with countless preliminary drawings, and continues to draw throughout the realisation of a body of work. Through drawing and thinking, the line that divided a field into two rectangles tipped. In ‘Connections – Litoral’ this is already happening. For Eager, “it’s not chance, but you’re working though something and something else presents itself, like a rectangle that’s fallen over.” They say you can’t reinvent the wheel, but in a way, at this moment Eager reinvented the angle.

At first, Eager placed a single angle on a rectangular canvas, producing a form Eager is careful to insist is not a triangle but an acute angle with sides. Interestingly, this compositional structure is not unlike the narrow view of an opening door in ‘Invited’, a relief linocut from 1977. Memories are also conjured of a tea set’s angular corners, or a lamp and the light it emits within a dark room. With single angles all around her studio, Eager decided to bring multiple compositions together in ‘On the Edge – P21’, a work comprising 32 panels of pastel on paper. The relationships between colours and forms across a body of work are now played out within a single composition. Certain colours spring forward whilst others recede, creating an interesting depth of field that is constantly altered as point of view changes.

From this point Eager began a series in which two canvases were placed together, resulting in two angles side by side (see ‘On the Edge -12’). The painted edges between colours and the physical edges of the canvas are brought into play. Without close attention to the painting it almost goes unnoticed that there is a physical divide between the two canvases. As a logical progression, Eager’s next series, ‘Precipice’, was enacted on a single canvas, with a hand-drawn edge where the canvas edge had been – no mean feat for an artist who was teased in her earlier career for not being able to draw a straight line. In these compositions, striking and often unconventional colour combinations produce lustrous fields. The edges separating colours are knife thin and exquisitely sharp; the colours seem to vibrate across the lightness of these lines. The smooth surface, as though barely touched by a brush, is in fact the product of multiple layers of carefully applied oil paint, painstakingly made to look flat. Eager suggests, ‘I produce my paintings in a printerly way, where I do a layer over a layer over a layer to get to a result.’ The result is a surface that hums, absorbing light and reflecting it back into the surrounding space enriched. Eager was moving towards a greater clarity and luminosity.

Over the past seven years, Eager has explored compositions using chains of triangles on fields of white, developing a startling dynamism out of the interplay between teetering forms and the unique spaces forged around them. This body of work began with drawings in pastel in 2004 and 2005, which were exhibited as multiple paper panel large-scale compositions. The challenge for Eager was then to translate the drawings onto canvas: “I like the all-overness of the drawing, how the texture is the same all over. And trying to paint the same texture all over a triangle that has little points in it… I was finding it frustrating." To find a solution, Eager referred back to her printmaking discipline and the technique of ‘pochoir’, where a colour is stamped over a template. In her canvases, the coloured triangles are similarly painted first using a cardboard template as a guide, and then afterwards the white paint is applied to the ‘background’. Far from being simply ground upon which triangles rest, the white is a potent and active force. This pure white conjures a distinct connection with Eager’s works set before the open window of her New York studio – a lampshade jutting out into almost-white canvas, the corner of a couch before the light of an open window. Now, the canvas is pure light, the forms and their colours strong and lucid.

Whilst in earlier manifestations of this schema, Eager used multiple colours in combination, over the past two years monochromatic compositions have achieved a new elegance and simplicity. Here, fine gradations of tone create the impression of delicate nuances of light. As in Eager’s early works, where the viewer was invited to enter each domestic scene, to notice objects just put down, in these compositions, the subtle shifts in colour require an intimate engagement with the surface as its striking simplicity is revealed as incredible complexity. Eager explains: “There are only three colours but if you look at it sometimes you see four colours or five colours because the relationship that happens when you have two colours together makes them change.” In a work such as ‘VIF’, sustained looking results in an orchestral experience; tones coalesce and then reinstate themselves as the eye journeys along meandering chains or jumps the encompassing white crevasses. It is a joyful refrain that requires no interpretation or point of reference, only an open experience of the colour and the light it emits.

Eager’s vibrant orange composition of equilateral triangles titled “Tango”, commissioned for the harbour entrance to the new Museum of Contemporary Art, has been planned for its setting amidst blue sky and green grass. Perhaps coming full circle, the portrayer of interiors, of fanciful wallpapers tilting at angles against tiled floors and tables, has now produced her own wall. Over 14 metres long and in her signature geometric abstraction of angles and softly complex surfaces, it is an invitation to join the dance, to lose oneself for a moment in the experience of looking.

Eager’s long evolution as an artist is by no means over. Always drawing, always thinking, always pushing the boundaries of her practice, Eager will continue to surprise us in the years to come.

Helen Eager: Beyond the Image

By Chloe Watson

Helen Eager’s oeuvre reveals a remarkable artistic journey – from a table, a chair, a sofa before an open window, to an equilateral triangle repeated in chains against white. In moving into and then beyond the image, Eager has reached a geometric simplicity that allows for endless variation and infinite complexity. The spaces Eager has continued to discover are the product of an artist who delights in her task – the simple act of putting pencil to paper, ink to stone or paint to canvas. Rather than rejecting representation or striving towards a purer form of art, Eager’s current abstraction has provided her with a new language through which sensation may be evoked. The viewer of her art is transported into a world where colour and light reign supreme.

The subject of Eager’s early work was always her immediate surroundings and the objects they contained – bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, wardrobe, table, chair. Whether in large-scale drawings and paintings or in smaller prints, Eager composed intimate views of spaces occupied but temporarily absent. The viewer was invited into the work, to wander amongst the odd angles and teetering objects of another’s life. These scenes were an inexhaustible subject, as there was always another way of framing a particular view, there were always things moving around, or changing in shifting light, and Eager herself was often moving, from her family home to share houses, and between studios.

Even in these early works, we can see interiors that tilt towards abstraction, flirting with the geometric forms to come – the light of a lamp on a table within a dark room cuts angular lines into the surrounding space; a chair in a room’s corner becomes a play of perpendiculars and parallels, the acute and the obtuse. The tessellating surfaces of wall and window, carpet and door were a platform for exploration – of the relationships between colours, of patterns in wallpapers, real and imagined, of forms made solid by the light slanting in from a window or open door.

Gradually, compositions became more and more focussed on single objects, or on narrow close up views. As Eager understands it, objects “started getting bigger and bigger, and I focused in to corners where the light shines off a teapot or a piece of furniture... then there was a point where the image dissolved and it became a thing; something in its own right.” Eager’s 1988 stint at the Australia Council studio in New York certainly played a crucial role in this evolution, although in the year preceding this trip Eager had already begun to produce abstracted close-up pictures of teapot tops and cup handles. These works were becoming less and less about the objects and more and more about the shapes that these objects were composed of, and the painterly fields these light-filled surfaces translated into.

The space of the New York studio, and the ease with which Eager could access large rolls of good paper, allowed her to expand in scale, at the same time bringing her ever closer to the thing she was representing – to the various views provided by the space around her and the objects it contained. She wanted to give the sensation in her paintings of this close vision she was experiencing as she worked, of things so close that they became nothing but “a series of lines and colour”.

In particular, Eager made countless drawings of the window of her Greene Street studio. She became fascinated with the light it emitted, and the effect this had on the objects caught in its frame:

New York does have a different light to Sydney light, even in winter you can have this really bright – but not colourful – intense light. So that’s what I was thinking about there, sort of the white out of it. And when you’re in a darkened room and you look out into something bright, everything looks dark inside… If you’ve got that really intense light behind something you get silhouettes, but then you also get those little licks of colour.

In ‘I Do Not Want To Simplify’ 1990, produced upon Eager’s return to Sydney, the edges of objects seem to be carved in light, highlighted with creamy yellow contours. Against the white light of the window, the jutting corner of a sofa and the curving line of a heater have almost departed from themselves, becoming shadowy form alone. Their surfaces are rendered in richly textured fields of layered oil stick; tangled colours jostle for space. In ‘New York Sunday - Snow’ 1990, the dark maroon form of a lampshade, its edges picked out in a lighter red, reaches out into the almost-white space of the canvas, where the faint traces of the window frame emerge as smudges from a dark under-layer - an image about to dissolve into pure light.

It was a simple translation from shadowy forms dividing the space beyond a window, to a picture plane divided into four rectangular forms. Standing before her oil painting ‘N.Y. Series Red/Yellow’ Eager remarks, ‘I look at it and it reminds me of New York, the shape in front of a window.’ Whilst still working through that image, this work presents an imagined space within which the geometric tension of intense red against deep black against caustic yellow evokes the sensation of sight without specifying its location. The richness of the colour is immersive. The lines carry their own narratives. In the language of non-objective abstraction Eager had discovered, the light remains – in the remembrance of that lucidity of form, the animated edges created by light cast from an open window, and in the colours produced by light almost filtering through opaque objects – colours open now to endless variation as the last link to representation was severed.

Within this new language, of pure line and pure colour, forms worked themselves through and led to new compositions. Eager’s pictures seemed to follow a self-perpetuating trajectory of formal exploration; planes divided into four rectangles were next divided into three and then into two; surfaces were worked in oils and pastels, print and pencil; vibrant blues were placed against acid greens against muted browns against charcoal greys. Eager says with a smile: “I like to challenge a medium.” She also likes to give every colour, every texture a chance:

When I do my paintings I have to do one in red and green and blue and yellow, I can’t leave any alone… You always have those browns and those irky colours – but I use them, I make sure I use them as well. And then you get different relationships between different colours. I just love it, I love using colour. I love to pick up a red pencil and work out what I’m going to do with it – with an orange or green or yellow or black.

In Eager’s pastels from this period, surfaces are scrawled and the texture of the paper is picked up in the grain of the medium. Their feel is softer, the edges less severe. In the large scale oil canvas ‘Connections – Litoral’ of 1996, we find the same expressive and painterly technique Eager employed in paintings such as ‘Giotto’ within the angular form of a teapot top. Here, paint has been flung across the canvas using a syringe, the process repeated over multiple layers. Gestural splashes repeated create a tantalizing depth, its effect amplified by the vast scale of the work.

Through constant creation in multiple mediums and in every colour possible, Eager works through a series until she feels she has exhausted its possibilities. Often she begins with countless preliminary drawings, and continues to draw throughout the realisation of a body of work. Through drawing and thinking, the line that divided a field into two rectangles tipped. In ‘Connections – Litoral’ this is already happening. For Eager, “it’s not chance, but you’re working though something and something else presents itself, like a rectangle that’s fallen over.” They say you can’t reinvent the wheel, but in a way, at this moment Eager reinvented the angle.

At first, Eager placed a single angle on a rectangular canvas, producing a form Eager is careful to insist is not a triangle but an acute angle with sides. Interestingly, this compositional structure is not unlike the narrow view of an opening door in ‘Invited’, a relief linocut from 1977. Memories are also conjured of a tea set’s angular corners, or a lamp and the light it emits within a dark room. With single angles all around her studio, Eager decided to bring multiple compositions together in ‘On the Edge – P21’, a work comprising 32 panels of pastel on paper. The relationships between colours and forms across a body of work are now played out within a single composition. Certain colours spring forward whilst others recede, creating an interesting depth of field that is constantly altered as point of view changes.

From this point Eager began a series in which two canvases were placed together, resulting in two angles side by side (see ‘On the Edge -12’). The painted edges between colours and the physical edges of the canvas are brought into play. Without close attention to the painting it almost goes unnoticed that there is a physical divide between the two canvases. As a logical progression, Eager’s next series, ‘Precipice’, was enacted on a single canvas, with a hand-drawn edge where the canvas edge had been – no mean feat for an artist who was teased in her earlier career for not being able to draw a straight line. In these compositions, striking and often unconventional colour combinations produce lustrous fields. The edges separating colours are knife thin and exquisitely sharp; the colours seem to vibrate across the lightness of these lines. The smooth surface, as though barely touched by a brush, is in fact the product of multiple layers of carefully applied oil paint, painstakingly made to look flat. Eager suggests, ‘I produce my paintings in a printerly way, where I do a layer over a layer over a layer to get to a result.’ The result is a surface that hums, absorbing light and reflecting it back into the surrounding space enriched. Eager was moving towards a greater clarity and luminosity.

Over the past seven years, Eager has explored compositions using chains of triangles on fields of white, developing a startling dynamism out of the interplay between teetering forms and the unique spaces forged around them. This body of work began with drawings in pastel in 2004 and 2005, which were exhibited as multiple paper panel large-scale compositions. The challenge for Eager was then to translate the drawings onto canvas: “I like the all-overness of the drawing, how the texture is the same all over. And trying to paint the same texture all over a triangle that has little points in it… I was finding it frustrating." To find a solution, Eager referred back to her printmaking discipline and the technique of ‘pochoir’, where a colour is stamped over a template. In her canvases, the coloured triangles are similarly painted first using a cardboard template as a guide, and then afterwards the white paint is applied to the ‘background’. Far from being simply ground upon which triangles rest, the white is a potent and active force. This pure white conjures a distinct connection with Eager’s works set before the open window of her New York studio – a lampshade jutting out into almost-white canvas, the corner of a couch before the light of an open window. Now, the canvas is pure light, the forms and their colours strong and lucid.

Whilst in earlier manifestations of this schema, Eager used multiple colours in combination, over the past two years monochromatic compositions have achieved a new elegance and simplicity. Here, fine gradations of tone create the impression of delicate nuances of light. As in Eager’s early works, where the viewer was invited to enter each domestic scene, to notice objects just put down, in these compositions, the subtle shifts in colour require an intimate engagement with the surface as its striking simplicity is revealed as incredible complexity. Eager explains: “There are only three colours but if you look at it sometimes you see four colours or five colours because the relationship that happens when you have two colours together makes them change.” In a work such as ‘VIF’, sustained looking results in an orchestral experience; tones coalesce and then reinstate themselves as the eye journeys along meandering chains or jumps the encompassing white crevasses. It is a joyful refrain that requires no interpretation or point of reference, only an open experience of the colour and the light it emits.

Eager’s vibrant orange composition of equilateral triangles titled “Tango”, commissioned for the harbour entrance to the new Museum of Contemporary Art, has been planned for its setting amidst blue sky and green grass. Perhaps coming full circle, the portrayer of interiors, of fanciful wallpapers tilting at angles against tiled floors and tables, has now produced her own wall. Over 14 metres long and in her signature geometric abstraction of angles and softly complex surfaces, it is an invitation to join the dance, to lose oneself for a moment in the experience of looking.

Eager’s long evolution as an artist is by no means over. Always drawing, always thinking, always pushing the boundaries of her practice, Eager will continue to surprise us in the years to come.