Essays

Suspended Crocodile (oil on linen 50x70cm)

Suspended Crocodile (oil on linen 50x70cm)

Nicola Bealing – Helston Museum

(Mark Dion 2015)

Since Fred Wilson’s breakthrough exhibition, “Mining the Museum” in 1993, institutions that collect have welcomed artists’ interventions as a productive, provocative and exciting method to invigorate museums. As critical thinkers, makers and highly skilled viewers, artists see aspects of objects unnoticed or concealed by time or display conventions. They have much to offer museums. However, after twenty years of artists’ interventions, the form risks becoming formulaic. If the methodologies and strategies of artists’ institutional interventions are to thrive, unexpected and broader artistic voices must be sought and encouraged. Nicola Bealing represents one of these unexpected artistic visions, which can add significantly to moving this form of expression forward.

Nicola Bealing is a painter of exceptional skill, talent and vision. Her work demonstrates impressive control, not only of painting technique, but also of her conceptual field of investigation. It is easy to imagine this brilliant mind making a significant contribution to the halls of the Helston Museum. The freshness of her approach, applying her rigorous skill and insight, represents exactly the surprising type of collaboration that will keep the model of artists’ collaborations with museums from becoming conventional. She is the kind of serious new voice that demands inclusion if the approach is to maintain its vitality. The Helston Museum is a treasure. It is one of the most exciting and furtive collections open to the public that I have ever had the pleasure to visit. There must be a way to bring contemporary discourse into the Museum without destroying its marvellous integrity. Working with exceptionally skilled and talented artists like Nicola Bealing is that way forward.

Nicola Bealing’s wonderful narrative painting

Nicola Bealing’s painting, crammed as it is with human and animal life, often begins with the story. And story telling for her began with reading her way through the world’s fairy tales and mythologies as an eight year old at school in Kuala Lumpur. ‘I still have a powerful sense of the world inside those books,‘ she says, ‘alternating dark and light, blood and forests, wind and sky and sea, eyes and teeth, long roads, high mountains, talking birds.’ The books were not illustrated, luckily perhaps, sparking that vividly seeing inner eye into picturing the whole rich mix.

In this current collection of paintings, the stories are many and there for the attentive viewer to wonder at. These images demand a reading – or many readings – for nothing is spelled out. But to be human is to wonder at each other’s lives and so we  stand before a painting such as Sprouting Like Weeds and find ourselves musing on what can have happened.  We can’t help ourselves, we are compelled to ask – just what strange event, what force can have caused these men to be standing up to their chests in water, varieties of weeds growing out of their heads? They are ridiculous, pathetic but somehow all the more human for their weedy growths.

So Nicola sets the scene; she enjoys absurdity and herd-like behaviour. She likes the moments when her characters flounder and sometimes she finds her subjects taking on lives of their own, acting in ways that are inexplicable even to her. Why are the couple in Feeding Time attempting to eat peas in the manner of the old party game, her standing behind him, arms around him wielding a knife and fork, trying vainly to shovel the peas into his mouth? The peas fly and it could indeed be a party game, but somehow we don’t think so. What at first seems lighthearted and fun in Nicola’s work often reveals a darkness, an edge to the humour. It’s a simple step to feeling that surely this couple has found some odd little way of acting out the dynamics of their relationship and it is for us the guess what that might be. But Nicola’s work is always playful, never a  cold dissection of our frailty and the work becomes a brilliant analogy of the ridiculousness of our trapped lives that celebrates our endearing ability to find ways of enduring, to some how rub along.

Nicola’s way of drawing the viewer into her paintings is coupled with a terrific skill in handling paint, conveying form in flowing line with the lightest and boldest of brush strokes, conjuring bodies out of almost nothing. And colour is vital, used with enormous intelligence. In Insects and Stolen Dahlias, alizarin crimson, magenta and burnt carmine clash and glow on a deliciously pale green background, jostling for attention as all kinds of insect life creeps and flies in among the startling blooms, undercutting any prettiness, but only adding to their brilliance.

In all the work, the main element perhaps is delight, occasionally a deliciously dark delight in the moment when it all goes wrong, and a huge enjoyment in what it means to be human. One small painting says it all: The White Peacock shows a glimpse of Flora Day, a well-loved event in the Helston calendar, Old May Day, when the schoolchildren’s dance takes place in the early morning and follows its traditional route, partly through private houses and gardens. The sun is shining and the crowds must be gathering.  The children are dancing through an unfamiliar corner of town, the gardens of the old people’s home. There’s that warmth, that delight in the beauty of the children who are scrubbed, shiny hair brushed to perfection, all dressed in white with little buttonholes of wild flowers carefully pinned to their collars. They have  practiced their dance so well but who can stifle  a wicked giggle when they are distracted by the elegant white peacock in his aviary that so unexpectedly appears before them; children trip  and the dance goes all awry? The big-hearted witnessing of our small moments of failure, and the pathos we invoke, is a theme that taken by the hand and led by Nicola we can all enjoy.

These paintings offer a gift of that enjoyment, one to rediscover each time you return to the work, but there is also a profound thoughtfulness. In the slow process of making these paintings, of leaving them aside, of discovering more about the characters and events as she returns to them, Nicola has left traces of a consideration of the human state that goes deep into our psyches. There aren’t many artists who have been able to take contemporary figurative painting and make it their own as distinctively as Nicola Bealing   and it is the celebratory nature of the work, of all human life, the successes and the failures as well as the conviction and skill with which the work is made, that make it so distinctive. And she can make you laugh – now that is a rare skill for a serious painter.

Karen Townshend 2010

Beaux Arts Bath

Horses riding people, men floating through the air on bubbles, skies raining fish or overcast by giant flowers : Nicola Bealing’s world is a world upside-down.  As such it stands in the carnival tradition, opening a much needed escape valve on reality.

Today, most people in the west with virtual reality games on their computers; Bealing does it he old-fashioned way, with paint on canvas.  She belongs in absurdist line of Northern European painters, like James Ensor and Max Beckmann, who have exploited the licence of the carnivalesque to tickle civilised society’s underbelly.  And recently, like Jack Butler Yeats and Laura Knight, she has also ventured into another favourite arena of the imaginative escapist : the topsy-turvy world of the circus top.

When I interviewed Bealing ten years ago, she told me she was not a fan of the circus, and it’s obvious to anyone who knows her work that her imaginative universe is her own creation.  But this show includes a large canvas titled The Ring which, at six feet across dwarfs Laura Knight’s The Grand Parade in Newport Art Gallery, and is even more densely packed with performers.  There are fire-breathers, pole-balancers, globe –walkers, back flippers, plate-spinners, head-standers, horn blowers, fat lady jugglers, bareback riders, a tiger tamer, a trick-cyclist, a clown with a wheelbarrow and a sailor with a mermaid tucked under his arm.  Unlike Knight, who was once compared by a critic to a circus strongman ‘overdeveloping the muscles of her vision at the expense of her nerves’, Bealing doesn’t make exhaustive studies of individual figures in a composition.  Having done three years of figure drawing as a student at the Byam Shaw in the 1980s, she now relies on memory and nerve, flying – like a character in one of her paintings – by the seat of her pants.  The undiluted force of her overactive imagination is channelled directly into paint – fluid juicy oil paint, as responsive as watercolour and as quick with light and movement as the shoals of fish she is so fond of painting.  Bealing is one of the very few contemporary painters with the confidence to paint figures – human and animal – in movement, and the panache to inject them with life.

Her wilder fantasies, like the image of the boy who has sprouted extra arms to accommodate a flock of visiting starlings, make you wonder where her ideas come from and if her pictures have ahidden moral.  Do the naked men clinging for dear life to the cloud of soap suds drifting off into the blue haze of Bubbles – or the inky blackness of the nocturnal version, Night Bubbles – sound a warning about boom and bust?

The tension in the air is almost palpable as we wait for inevitable pop! and plummet.  And could Horse Race, with its desperate human figures struggling to carry horses towards an invisible winning post, be a comment on the hopeless indignity of the rat race?  Perhaps.  But some of Bealing’s images, like Owl with Stolen Rose, defy any such obvious interpretation.  In Bealing’s world, suggests the owl’s expression, things are presumed to make sense until proven to be nonsense.  And who’s to say the wise old owl is wrong?  The Brazilian priest who was recently lost at sea while test-flying a cluster of party balloons in support of a charity would have made a perfect subject for a Bealing painting.  Her art reminds us that life is a lot stranger than we think.

‘Humour is an important element in much of my work, but always balanced with a dark undercurrent’, Bealing has said.  Some of her images might be seen as modern-day fables, others as merely fabulous – and others again, like the cartwheeling children on a beach at sunset, as simple, spontaneous eruptions of painterly high spirits.

Laura Gascoigne 2009

Beaux Arts

A visit to Nicola Bealing’s studio is a sensory treat.  Initially there is the dramatic Cornish countrysidethat provides the view, then the burgeoning tropical plants that bask in the sun outside the door.  Step inside and the olfactory hit is unmistakable – the pungent, evocative smell of paint and turpentine, not so common now that the ubiquitous acrylic has all but supplanted them.  Take in the paintings and the sensory receptors are tweaked once again as they respond to an extraordinary range of images – dancing horses, swirling shoals of fish, dreamlike moonlit boat rides, birds flocking in a magical tree, seaside and beach scenes – some naturalistic, some almost fantastical flights of fancy painted in sumptuous, saturated colour.

Often artists working in a similar idiom limit their palette to a single tonal range leaving vibrancy and contrast to the abstractionists.  Nicola Bealing has no such qualms and has roots beyond her nineteen years in Cornwall to draw upon : she grew up in the warmth and sunshine of Malaysia and studied at the Byam Shaw in London, an art school with strong figurative tradition. When she came to Cornwall for a two-month stay after she graduated she soon fell in love with the relaxed lifestyle and ‘stunning sunsets’.

But what of these paintings?  While some appear to be straight observation – boats in a harbour, children on a beach – others appear more mysterious, allegories or fairy tales that we know but can’t quite remember.  In fact, as Nicola explains, there are two distinct strands to the work in this exhibition.   First, there are the compositions worked up from sketches such as Sennen Shells, a study of a young child, perhaps her own, arranging and studying his precious cache on the sand.  Or A Weever Fish Among the Sand Eels, another beautifully observed beach scene where a child pulls from the pile of fish being sorted on the beach (in triumph or perhaps dismay) the notorious venomous weever.  With subjects such as these a less rigorous artist might slip into sentimentality, but Bealing’s colours, subtle but always shading to darks, and her bold brushstroke prevents this ever being a possibility.

The second theme is culled from classical mythology and Bealing’s own plenteous ideas.  Beneath that magical tree is Tiresias who was granted the gift of  understanding the language of birds when he lost his sight, a blandishment not so welcome perhaps when one realises that the chattering birds almost outnumber leaves upon the branches.  This then is the original story but it is the dancing autumn colours with their deep purple accents that initially draw one in; the narrative unfolds with time.  These sensuous colours make one hungry for more and indulgence ( or a lusty enjoyment of all good things) features in many of these paintings, from the fat, rootling pigs in Calchas and Mopsus and the decadent idlers of the Lotus Eaters to the laden table in Tea – a veritable schoolboy’s dream of cream cakes and goodness.

 Nicola Bealing’s work is a complex and eclectic mix that draws upon fable and fairy tale, observation and imagination.  In this latest body of work she has discovered a rich source of ideas and images that, whether referencing the ‘wine dark sea’ of  antiquity or the tea table of the absurd, has produced paintings of dynamic colour full of human warmth and surreal good humour.

Pip Palmer 2007

Lemon Street Gallery

Swirling shoals of fish, serried ranks of sunbathers bronzing on a beach, a gang of small boys hanging from a tightrope, processions of figures piggybacking or following a horse, birds and humans observing each other, people playing, fishing or going about their daily business –  Nicola Bealing’s typical subject matter is, at first sight, diverse in character to say the very least.  When asked about this she says simply, ‘I paint things that catch my eye.’  And that of course, is perfectly true, as far as it goes; the shoals of fish, a particularly persistent theme, derived initially from a visit, some ten years ago, to the Monterey Aquarium in California, while the bathing and beach scenes can be found literally on the doorstep of her studio-home outside Helston.

But these are very much not the classic Cornish/St Ives ‘takes’ on such scenes: while intensely bold and painterly in their handling, the abstracting qualities of light and colour are not he overriding preoccupations of her work.  As she herself is at pains to point out in her conversation, she has always fought against the’Cornish thing’ from the moment she went to live there some eighteen years ago, just a year or two after leaving the Byam Shaw Schoolo f Art.  And it is in her training there that perhaps lie the crucial clues as to the real, underlying concerns of her work, the tutor to whom she felt herself to have the greatest affinity among its staff being the distinguished figurative painter Tim Hyman.  With his long-standing concerns, both as an artist and curator, for the idea in narrative painting, Hyman’s range of reference goes deep into the European tradition, and something of this, one senses, whether consciously or unconsciously, has found its way into Nicola’s way of looking at the world.  Thus the narrative is not always obvious once you start to look at the paintings more closely , the scenes, almost invariably, being filled with an ambivalence of feeling where it is not immediately obvious, for example, whether the children hanging from the tightrope (Hanging On/Letting Go) are simply enjoying themselves or whether something more spiky or sinister is going on here that one can’t quite put a finger on, some subconscious memory perhaps of Goya’s disturbing early paintings of children playing pick-a-back or tossing straw dolls, or even of Breugel’s somehow desperate and frenetic depictions of children’s games, so mysterious and essentially unknowable.

Once you start looking at her work in this way it becomes increasingly obvious that Nicola’s real curiosity lies in patterns of behaviour, human and animal, either in large groups or one-to-one encounters, or even, as in  Bringing Toast for Morris, Boy With Bird  or A Big Fish, interactions between humans and animals, and their sometimes alarming similarities quite as much as their differences.  So, the human beings laid out in rows on their beach towels seem to be engaged in the same kind of overriding, atavistic herd activity as the fish that swim en masse past our eyes, the proximity or actuality of water and the impish humour that suggests the incomprehensibility and unknowability of each group’s behaviour to the other,only serving to emphasise her underlying sense of the absurd.  More often than not though,  it is the absurdity of human behaviour in particular that comes across most strongly, as, for example in A Big Fish, Bird Watching or again, Bringing Toast for Morris. This last work, in particular, with its intensely knowing and beautifully beady-eyed portrait of a cockatoo in the foreground and gawping kids looking up to it from the middle ground, seems to state exactly who it thinks might be considered the more intelligent!

It is easy though to get carried away by such speculative thoughts with paintings such as these, however much an attraction in her work they may be, and forget that she can do the quiet, tender and gently humorous scenes no less well. In Warm Evening or Sight Reading for example, warm sonorous reds and dark velvety blues, underpinned, as everywhere in her work by a flowing line and intuitive compositional sense, bring a powerful sense of the warmth, intimacy and pathos of human emotions to the encounter also.   For this is an artist who has now found her own personal voice and is pursuing it with a growing confidence and range of expression – where next will she direct her penetrating glance?

Nicholas Usherwood 2006

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