Gallant Boy (oil on board 25x18.5cm)
Q9 Nicola Bealing interviewed by Tim Dixon
Matt’s Gallery 2023
TD This is an exhibition in two chapters, Dead-man’s Fingers, and The Borough. How do these two chapters relate?
NB Well, they relate chronologically in that the Dead-man’s
Fingers paintings were made before The Borough paintings. I told you that
the paintings started in lockdown in quite an unplanned way. It felt like a very quiet and focused time, and I started making these paintings of an underwater other world, a kind of alternate space that I felt I was going into every day and closing the door, and where I was intensely focused on these quite detailed paintings.
And then the sculptural elements showing alongside the paintings also hap- pened in an almost unplanned way, with these big plastic buoys, which often wash up on the beaches here in the winter, and we had a couple of those hanging around. They just seemed like very interesting objects, with their own histories, which I felt had to have some potential. I had the idea of relating them to the paintings, so in a way it now seems as if the objects have grown out of the paintings. It’s as if the paintings sent out tentacles and have become, not exactly living beings, but sort of three-dimensional entities in their own right. And I started to feel that some of the objects I was making were taking on their own characters and personalities, so that the objects were being made towards the end of the time when I made the coral paintings, the Dead-man’s Fingers paintings, but they definitely overlapped with the figurative work in The Borough. To my mind, both bodies of work are related and there are kind of overlaps and conversations going on between the works, or the se- ries of works. It makes sense to me that they are linked. They run into each other.
TD You mentioned characters and personalities. I feel like that’s something that’s often very strong in your work – in the press release we refer to the small paint- ings you often make as character studies. You’ve spoken about those before as experiments with paint, seeing what the medium will do and drawing out these faces. Is there a similarity between those and the objects?
NB Well, I haven’t made that link at all, but maybe. I think with the sculptures, the next step could be to anthropomorphize them more. Not give them faces or anything as obvious as that, but to let them almost become puppets or have limbs or sugges- tions of them. As human beings it doesn’t take very much for us to see faces in things or to see objects as bodies or creatures.
TD There are some that are quite an anthropic already. They look a bit like disembod- ied heads, or there’s a hand emerging from one, and then the way you’ve used gloves or fingers. They look a bit like disembodied body parts floating in the ocean because of some unpleasant or unfortunate incident.
NB A catastrophe, yes. That was my idea as well, and that the people had been sub-sumed, were starting to be regurgitated by the sea. Then finding that amazing name of the coral, ‘Dead-man’s Fingers’, it kind of brought it all together, and it made sense to use lots of gloves, and make hands, and fingers. That was a happy accident coming across that name.
TD When you were working on them, did you always intend that they should be seen with the paintings or was that something that emerged?
NB That was my ideal that they would be seen together. Yeah, absolutely.
TD How have you found moving into three dimensions? Are there parallels in the way you would approach an object and a painting? Does it feel like a similar process or is it quite different?
NB I felt quite weirdly self-conscious about it to start with. I felt like I was trespassing into other people’s territories, and I had no kind of justification for that really. But the process of making was very enjoyable, a lot of the work in there is quite repeti- tive; sticking small things onto big things, it felt a bit like playschool, twiddling bits of string around things and bending wires. It’s a very different process to making a painting where it’s always a continuous series of decisions, one after another – colour, and placing of every brushstroke, and things going wrong; whereas this seemed easy, and that’s why I kept at it, and that’s why the group of sculptures – I think we can call them sculptures – grew and multiplied. Also I think in the paint- ings, a lot of my work, there’s a kind of maximalism, a repeated element, almost over-egging, and I think the sculptures started to share that as well. It seemed im- portant to me that there were more and more of them, they almost reproduced and grew.
TD Do you think they’ve come to end or do you think you might continue to add to it?
NB I could add to them. They could go on infinitely and populate huge spaces. But I think with the show I feel like I’ve come to a full stop with this body of work for now.
TD When you work in extended series like these, as you often do, how do you bring them to an end? Is it quite intuitive or do you have a sense from the beginning that you’re setting out on something extended that needs to be interrogated at length?
NB I think it is quite intuitive. I get to the point with a series of work where I know that continuing would bore me. It would be possible, but if it’s not interesting me any- more, why would it interest anyone else? I think the work becomes weaker and not necessarily repetitive, but it has to excite me to make the next piece within a series. I think with the coral paintings, at the beginning I was at that stage where I thought these were surprising, and they fed me, and they interested me, and I worked on them over a long time, and I made quite a lot of paintings in that series. But it’s al- most like waking up one morning and thinking, ‘Oh, no. I can’t do another one of those,’ and obviously at that point you need to stop.
TD There’s a couple of paintings in here that seem to act as bridges or crossovers be- tween the two chapters – Drowned Boy and Too Long At Sea. Did they come in- tentionally as part of this series or did they make sense as bridges after the fact? Do you see them as part of one series or another?
NB Well, in my mind, they were part of The Borough, Drowned Boy is actually the first of The Borough paintings, but I think because I’ve been so heavily steeped in the lan- guage of the coral paintings that, almost despite myself, my hand kept making those sorts of gestures and my head was still somewhere in that world. The Borough, as you know, is based on George Crabbe and particularly the poem about Peter Grimes, which is dark and marine, and scary, and cruel, and incredibly visual. When you read it that imagery made sense crossing over with the previous work, the kind of underwater worlds which ’’d been living in.
TD How did you come across the story and how did it capture your interest so much?
NB It was almost accidental. I don’t know Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, but I do have a mental image of the setting as a dark stormy coastal scene with fishermen. For no particular reason I was wondering where Britten got the story of Peter Grimes from, I had a hunch he didn’t make it up. Most things have a source, and a quick Google led me to George Crabbe in 1810 writing this long poem, The Borough, which is a fic- tionalized account of Aldeburgh in Suffolk, it describes everything in the village: the schools, the prison, the inn, the church, the vicar, the school mistress, the poor, residents of the alms houses, all these characters.
George Crabbe was fairly successful towards the end of his life, and he was quite highly rated. People like Byron and Jane Austen were admirers, but during Victo- rian times he lost favour and no one’s quite sure why. One idea is that he depicted the everyday life of the poor a bit too accurately and Victorians weren’t too keen on that. They wanted poetry to be a bit more prettified, so his work isn’t well known now apart from this one poem, Peter Grimes, which really jumps out. It’s a really bleak tale, basically of a murderer and child abuser who gets his comeuppance on his deathbed when the ghosts and the spirits of the people that he murdered come back to torment him. I was drawn to it because it’s incredibly visually written, so all these descriptions jump to life, and the images of the landscape as well. He talks about the sucking mud, and slithering mollusks, and seabirds. It’s all good stuff.
TD You talked before about the complicity of the people in the town in the story – that people know what’s happening, but allow it to happen. I think you said that you felt that was at the heart of the horror of the poem.
NB Yes. It took me a few readings to realize that, ‘Oh, THAT is actually why this is such a disturbing poem.’ As well as the account of his crimes, there are just these little side comments where the people in the village basically say, ‘Oh, yeah. Peter Grimes is at it again. He’s got himself another apprentice boy,’ and then, ‘oh dear, now they’re starving.’ Or they hear the sounds of him beating the boy, and the child crying, and they try to hold him to account, but he just gets away with it again and again. It’s an old story, isn’t it? The bystander effect, communal apathy.
TD I wanted to ask you about the role that writing plays as source material for you. You’ve worked with fables and folk tales before, and in your previous show at Matt’s Gallery in 2018 there was the ledger of crimes committed in Cornwall that you took inspiration from. Is writing something you often turn to in your practice?
NB Recently, it has been. I think it’s something I resisted for a long time because I felt that using narratives to make work from implied illustration, which is something I definitely resist very strongly. The Capital Crimes… painting and the body of work that it was associated with, Death and Circuses, came from texts in the museum near my studio in Helston in Cornwall. I was given a project to make work based on the museum, and I think people expected me to make paintings of its objects and arte- facts. I couldn’t work out how to do that. It just seemed boring and pointless, and I was really struggling until I started looking at the texts in the archive and the writ- ten word, and finding words without images which let me make up my own images. It’s like when when TVs were invented and people didn’t want to give up their ra- dios because they said that the pictures were better on the radio.
It’s that kind of thing – the images you conjure up in your own mind are more fitted than anything that could be in front of you, so that became a kind of spring- board to me thinking I could make work with a given narrative or a text. That led to other projects, like making a series of work based on the Lorca play, Blood Wed- ding. Again, very dark and very visual. It comes back to not wanting to illustrate, so reading something and then bouncing out from that, and seeing where it takes me.
TD I was thinking about the project that you did with the Foundling Museum as well.
NB That was, again, catching hold of the thing to make work about, and in that case, the thing was broadside ballads, kind of cheap, throwaway ballad sheets that were everywhere in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Quite political, but also scurrilous, scatological, funny, and again, conjured up great images and characters to make work about.
TD The corals in Dead-man’s Fingers feel quite distinct from that kind of way of working. Where would you locate these within your practice? Do you see them as relating to other works of yours?
NB Not really. When I made them, I felt they were almost self-indulgent because I was, when it comes down to it, just having a very nice time making paintings which were about colour and escapism. I think of them as somewhere between still-lives and scientific, or fake scientific illustrations. Although obviously, if there was a true coral expert around, they’d be appalled because the coral is not real. It’s from my imagination, an excuse to use colour. People often ask me, ‘Oh, do you do a lot of scuba diving?’ I’ve never scuba dived in my life, but I did grow up in Malaysia and as a child we would do a lot of snorkeling, so I think maybe I do have a deep memory of that wonder of looking down at an incredible tropical marine landscape, where basically any colour goes. It’s kind of beyond imagination, the colours and the things that you see and then move on a bit, and there’s something even more amazing.
TD You work with such a range of sizes and scales. The Borough series has the largest works you’ve made to date. I wondered about that decision-making pro- cess, how you work across those different scales. How do you decide you want to or need to work at large scale, and when do you prefer to work at smaller scale?
NB There are two, three-metre paintings in The Borough, I was very sure in my mind that, especially Again They Come, needed to be huge and frightening, much bigger than life size because in the poem, the impact of the terrifying figures looming out of the waters, it’s massive. I wanted to have a touch of what goes on in medieval church paintings where scenes of a horrific fate for sinners of hell and damnation are painted all around around the interiors, and all those huge figures around you would’ve been overwhelming. The other one, Lost Hope and
Anchor also needed that scale or size and depth, so that the viewer feels small against it. It sounds like quite a mean thing to do, but I wanted a sense of oppression. There’s the bright hopeful light at the bottom of the painting, but when you look up along the chain of the anchor it’s obvious all hope is lost.
I think it’s a really exciting contrast to go from big paintings where you’re mak- ing big gestures, throwing around lots of paint and using big brushes, and then to come down to a very intimate size where you have to really almost go nose-to-nose with the paintings to engage with it to see what’s going on, and I like both those things, both those scales.
TD Was there a point with the 3D works where you felt that it was going to grow to the size that it’s grown to? Individually, they’re quite delicate, but when they’re amassed, it’s quite an enormous installation.
NB I did think this needs to keep growing. Like I said, there is quite often a sort of demented maximalism in my paintings, but also that idea, even if it’s a big painting, you can come up close to it, and find small details and objects within it. I think the sculptures have that same sense, that you get the impact of the whole installation together as a mass, but then as you come closer you discover the individual elements, and all the strange things that make it up.
January 2023 Nicola Bealing Chapter 1: Dead-man’s Fingers 1 February–5 March 2023
and Chapter 2: The Borough 15 March–16 April 2023 Matt’s Gallery, 6 Charles Clowes Walk, London, SW11 7AN
A Curious Environment
Martin Holman 2023
I want to make pictures that stop people in their tracks.
During the first lockdown in 2020, Nicola Bealing was in her studio in Helston. As everywhere else in those strange, anxious months, day-to-day social life had slipped into hibernation. With no specific project on the horizon and the art world had frozen, only birdsong broke into the still and quiet of the building where Bealing works most days. So, in that curious environment that mixed unprecedented emergency with an uneasy peace, Bealing decided to take a line and some colour for a walk.
She never had to leave her workplace. For this painter, her route was always going to be through paper, a panel of wood (the surface she most prefers) or an expanse of canvas. As she says, ‘one thing led to another’ and her imagination took her, metaphorically at least, underwater. A line is the bedrock of artistic creation: a kind of calligraphy that brings shapes into being rather than words, it keeps the mind and the eye on the move. The lines she makes are typically agile and animated; they love to swirl and flow, injecting life into the paint. A painter becomes absorbed in a process that brings with it memories of things seen, other marks made and emotions felt. If her destination was unknown at the outset, the direction became clear as abstract arrangements of lines and colours assumed an aquatic identity, almost for convenience. They branched into a network of skeletal fringes where knots of colour blossomed. Almost intuitively, Bealing arrived at coral imagery, a maritime ecosystem thriving with life-forms, the occasional bone and scatterings of teeth.
Canvases followed that depicted no specific location although Bealing knew the territory. For six years from the age of four she lived in Malaysia. As a child and later as a teenager, she snorkelled in Indian Ocean waters bristling with marine life. As craggy outcrops formed with her brush in the studio, her coral was not, she admits, botanically accurate. While her fantasy seabed might suggest to onlookers a desire to escape the world’s sorry circumstances, such allusions never occurred to her. For, at any moment, the artist’s studio is a sequestered spot where the unexpected happens, ‘a magical thing that once fixed on,’ she says, ‘you can build on until the painting becomes obvious’.
The paintings have the uncanny effect of occupying a space beyond time. Faced with each large canvas, the viewer’s perceptions are momentarily drawn from the exhibition space into a serenely creative alternative environment ‘The coral forms are loosely based on real life,’ Bealing says, ‘but I was way more interested in their role as a vehicle for outrageous colour and sinuous line. The paintings ended up somewhere between still-life and invented scientific illustrations. I had a lot of fun with them!’
In her childhood, intense colour was seen everywhere, in flowers, in the dyed and patterned Batik fabrics people wore, and in the equatorial landscape. Looking back, she says ‘any colour was possible.’ Being exposed to such sights from an impressionable age, she says, ‘I am not worried by colour’. She is constantly experimenting with rich variations of colours that endow her paintings with distinctive atmospheres that appear modelled by an interior light. The sea, too, had an impact early on and crept back into her life after graduation from art school in London when she moved to a studio on the harbourside in Porthleven in 1988; she has lived in west Cornwall ever since. International travel remains a source of inspiration – to rural Vietnam, for instance, India and Thailand, and a residency in 2020 in Oaxaca, south-west Mexico where cacti flower brilliantly. During an earlier trip to North America she visited the Monterey Aquarium in California where floor to ceiling viewing areas project into the bay, home to numerous variegated species of fish, sharks, abalone and squid, and a living kelp forest.
Growing up abroad, there was no television at home but plenty of books. She particularly remembers enjoying folk tales gathered by the publisher Paul Hamlyn into editions that used strong colour when it was unusual and expensive to print. The illustrations were generous in size and packed with detail to keep this reader imaginatively involved in the story. Her father, a biologist and plant physiologist specialising in tropical agriculture, made botanical illustration for a pastime and her mother, also a scientist, always drew and encouraging her children. ‘Every paper bag was cut open to draw on’, Bealing recalls. So reading and making, word and image were part of her upbringing and her development as a painter preserves that memory. ‘I want to be nice to viewers and give them something to look at,’ she says, almost mischievously. ‘When I was a child, looking at a really good picture book felt nourishing. I think art can be that way, too.’ Asked what she expects those viewers to take away from her work, she replies that she wants to leave them material to invent their own stories and, she adds, ‘some head-scratching, too.’
Whereas the coral serves up a visual feast induced by painterly action, narrative features strongly in her pictures with figurative themes. They comprise the quintessentially English strand in her personality and are invariably about something – but about what is not always obvious. An event read in a newspaper can spark a painting into existence as easily as a quirky incident seen in the street. ‘I’m not an illustrator,’ she explains, because an offbeat idea spawned by a piece of writing means more to her than its direct imitation. Being a figurative painter – a discipline built on looking established by years of life-drawing at the Byam Shaw School of Art, where she studied – she is drawn to the behaviour of people and to how the body expresses choices, conditions or extreme situations. With that she creates her own fictional response.
Since student days she has painted with oil and she loves it, declaring that the more she uses the medium, the more she finds out what it allows her to do. Watercolour and gouache are favourites, too, discovered at school in Hertfordshire when, always good at art but with no notion that it could ever be her career (medicine was her intended profession), she saw luminous English landscape paintings by Thomas Girtin, a friend of Turner. Her fascination with the properties of her materials helps propel into the challenge of the next painting: pushing paint around some paper can eventually lead into a picture. Accidents happen with paint that unlock fresh possibilities, so to ease the way out of a technical corner, she will take a risk with technique or a form, or maybe the speed of a gesture. ‘Unless you try it, you don’t know what it will look like. It might stop you ripping up the work, so I keep going until something looks right!’
In 2015 she was invited to a make paintings about the collections of the Helston Folk Museum. Resisting her hosts’ assumption that objects would be her subject, she found her way to the archive of local newspapers and notices from previous centuries. Stories tumbled from the pages. One described the knife-thrower’s assistant; another how the master of 17-year-old Ann Medlyn, the ‘absconded apprentice’, wanted her return in 1816; a full spread in 1788 related in verse the ‘elegy on the melancholy incident’ that convulsed Porthleven when ’33 men and boys and four women’ perished in a pleasure boat accident. Coming across a lengthy list of executions in Cornwall in the century to 1882, Bealing indulged the appetite for detail that has survived from childhood. Almost two metres square, the resulting tableau gathers a hundred years of capital offences (from sheep rustling and horse stealing to infamous murder) into one place, committed by miniature silhouetted figures simultaneously in one place as if spied on accidentally by a passer-by through a screen of bucolic honeysuckle.
At London’s Foundling Hospital Museum, eighteenth-century alleyways opened to her as she trawled printed ballads and broadsheets, and reacted to the scurrilous and often surreal tales from the tabloid press of the era when the hospital, Britain’s first home for children at risk, was founded by prominent figures that included the painter William Hogarth. Using print and painting, Bealing she reflected on cases like that of Shameless Joan who wandered the dark London streets on all fours with a candle anatomically inserted to light her path.
‘Humour is an important element in many of my paintings,’ Bealing says. ‘But it’s balanced with a dark undercurrent. I want my work to be slightly unnerving but not creepy.’ Her early love of fables contributes to that sensation but the moral dimension found in folk stories does not interest her. Remembering her own experience she says that ‘is the boring bit you always skip.’ The potential for harm and humiliation from unseen others, however, surfaces in a compassionate tone that mediates the alarm her viewers perceive. Bealing sides with the outcasts, misfits and adolescents in danger, although not to the cost of a striking image when, engrossed in their stories, she thought about them at night.
That sensitivity, manifested in her quavering drawing style, attracted her to the story of the fisherman Peter Grimes. It lies behind her latest series of paintings that forms the second stage of Bealing’s current two-part solo exhibition (with her coral paintings shown first) at Matt’s Gallery, a leading London venue for contemporary art. Written by the nineteenth-century poet George Crabbe and better known today from Benjamin Britten’s opera first performed in 1945, Grimes is an outright bully untouched by pity. After three of his young apprentices are starved, beaten and drowned, Grimes is ordered to work alone until the ghosts of his victims terrorise him into madness and he dies in bed. Bealing’s searingly lustrous images reinvent the grisly drama in terms that border on magic realism unsuspected in the original. The shadow of earlier artists who helped shape this artist’s outlook, like Goya and Pieter Breughel, add more weight to compositions where Grimes malevolent influence is felt twisting innocent play, as in Boys who climb, into a sinister outcome.
Darkness also stalks her latest innovation, which assumes three dimensions. Suspended overhead at her London show are an array of weird and bulbous coloured objects. Limpet shells encrust bodies that trail tentacle-like strands that momentarily flip the ground-floor gallery, where Bealing’s coral paintings hang against walls painted black, into a vision of the watery depths. Collectively called Dead-man’s Fingers, the installation is improvised from boat fenders collected by her husband and sons from beaches around the Lizard. ‘They came about so naturally I am self-conscious about calling them sculptures.’ Once again a twist in interpretation joyously occurs. But this time the direction is reversed and sinister connotations give way to play.
Nicola Bealing’s exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, London, is in two parts: Dead-man’s Fingers continues to 5 March, followed by The Borough, 15 March – 16 April https://www.mattsgallery.org/
© Martin Holman
18 January 2023
Nicola Bealing Mono
Kestle Barton 8 June – 14
(Jo Stockham 2018)
Reading The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri on the long train journey from London unexpectedly turned out to be perfect preparation for the exhibition Mono by Nicola Bealing. Greeted at Redruth station by Ryya, we take a thirty-minute car journey, past the otherworldly satellites of Goonhilly onto the Cornish peninsular auspiciously named the Lizard. Arriving at Kestle Barton, a group of farm buildings exquisitely restored by Alison Bunning, one senses that the massive cobb walls of the white painted buildings are breathing. In strong sunlight there are echoes of the adobe buildings painted by Georgia O’Keefe. A wooden kiosk outside the gallery door assures visitors that muddy boots and dogs are welcome establishing a lack of pretension and generosity which characterises the place and the people running it.
There are two galleries. One ‘the apple store’ approached by a small staircase, has a wooden floor and irregular beams taken from tree trunks which retain their curves. They hover discreetly above the white walls so as not to distract from the showing space below. The other larger space, a rectangular barn has a simple wooden ‘A’ frame roof, grey speckled concrete floor and white walls. The entrance door faces another door which invites you to walk straight into the garden, the adjacent flower meadow and the self-serve shed selling coffee, cake and apple juice. The invitation to walk straight through means that people who may hesitate to step inside a white cube enter anyway and may be drawn to examine the work on display.
The exhibition is an impressive demonstration of the potentials of mono-printing across an array of 16 large and 29 smaller mono-prints. The way the fluidity of the process, chance and accident are used to conjure character is reminiscent of the watercolour portraits of Marlene Dumas. But these images are differently inflected with the humour, scatology and language influenced by Bealing’s interest in social history and folk lore as conveyed by printed ephemera and broadsheets. Broadsheets are single sheets of paper with stories often told in verse, interpreting and sharing popular stories, frequently illustrated with stock imagery from a local printers block collection. Along with chapbooks they mark the emergence of popular literature and mass publishing in the 18th Century. Often illustrating notorious people, gossip, crime and bawdy tales this cheaply sold fake news, seems oddly current. Broadsheets were circulated and sold by travelling ‘chapmen’. Local printers would copy and remake the same story a kind of paper gossip internet. Some of the stories Bealing references grew from working with the archives of the Helston Folk Museum and later the archives of the Foundling Museum in London where there is a concurrent exhibition of different but related work.
The ‘Head Series’ seem to visualise characters Dante and Virgil might have encountered on their descent into hell. Flatterer, Flutter, Watchful, Dick Nose, Champion, Waverer, Balloon, What, Dentist, Monk and Poet emerge from and collapse into abstractions of smeared and scraped ink. Some heads appear to be in a state of transformation; is Long Hair, a lamb chop or a person is Bunter prescient of our prime minister? is Cabbage animal or vegetable? Here the accidents and possibilities of mono-printing are intimately bound with the subject as the distinct differences of the portraits emerge from the process of making. Marble Head, Son and Heir, Told You So, Speechless, Yo, Cold Hands, Windswept, Ape, Beanie, Blue Nose, Yup, Ho, are people or animals with their vulnerabilities and confusions exposed. The quietly comic and combative titles caricature types who could appear in a farce, pantomime or puppet show.
Five large prints of heads; Green Nose, Schemer, Dame, Cowboy and Hypnos are the culmination of this period of experimentation. Each figure has great presence and an entirely different character. Green Nose describes a fact, Dame and Cowboy both seem familiar characters though both are diffident in their roles. Schemer is the most disturbing portrait, as it is a head without a face atop a blue neck which may be knitted. A head which may be hollow or dissolving into a halo of into dirty yellow-green liquid, in fact perhaps it is a landscape not a head at all. A sense of movement animates Hypnos, who enters the canvas from the side, as if peering into the room from an external space, their head (gender is difficult to specify) perhaps has winged ears.
The 8 polymer gravure ‘Broadsheet Etchings’ which are on show in the apple store gallery retain the fluidity of the mono-prints. Drawn on a translucent paper with a grain which holds the mark of pencil, chalk or liquid ink, the images are transferred to a photo sensitive plate with exceptional capacity to reproduce texture and line. Mary Toft shows a woman with rabbits tumbling out of her rear end, based on a true story of a woman who tricked doctors into believing she had given birth to rabbits. Toft was the subject of a popular 18th century broadsheet as was Shameless Joan who walks on all fours with a lighted candle in her backside. In other prints a dog bites its own tail, a head is all mouth and otherwise entirely pustular (Dorothy was handsome her teeth white as snow) and a shitting she devil tugs the hair of a worried looking man in To Father a Child that’s None of Mine Own. The Disappointed Pastry – shows a cook rolling out his turd confectionary, no doubt an eighteenth century commentary on money making swindles and food adulteration. Displaced eyes float in front of an oddly photographic face in A Looking Glass for Lascivious Young Men. One of the effects of the way ink is totally absorbed by paper through the pressure of traditional presses can be to confuse a contemporary viewer. The mimicry by photo-shop of material traces can be mistaken as the method when most people print by pressing a keyboard to send a file to a laser printer.
Alongside the head prints are a series of exotic birds. Initially these seemed unrelated but a quizzical bird looking at its own underwater feet shares the sense of absurdity present in other work. Night Bird shows a human dangling from the beak of a flying bird in a reversal of power relations often depicted in The World Turned Upside Down, a popular chapbook subject in European political satire which seems pertinent to our current political situation. Two black swans with intertwined necks in An Argument, (since forgotten) read almost like an emblem or printers mark but also evoke daft decision making and strangled possibilities.
To make mono-prints requires a decisive approach as the ink is drying as soon as it is applied to the matrix holding the image, in this case plastic sheet (but glass and metal are also common). An exhibition video by Alban Roinard shows Bealing mono-printing in the studio of Simon Marsh an expert printer based in Cornwall. In it we see the confident gestures of the artist as she paints with oil paint and draws with oil stick onto a sheet of plastic afterwards manipulating the image with a scraper and thinners. She then carries the plate through a garden to the print shop where it is rolled through the press by Marsh. To print a large print requires a kind of choreography of bodies, paper and ink. Care is needed when handling damp paper, which picks up every mark, and it takes two to handle the larger sheets. Precision is needed to register more than one plate, lining up the inked up matrix exactly with the previously printed work. The process of exchange, problem solving, experimentation, and the close collaboration between two highly skilled artists, requires trust and understanding. As Bealing describes;
‘The apparent simplicity of the process requires intense focus, both happy and unhappy accidents can randomly happen. All printmaking is a kind of magic, but I’ve always been drawn to mono-printing for the speed at which that magic happens and the way in which it works as a springboard to bounce ideas and problems out of the studio.’
What is the relation between studio, gallery, location and memory? Bealing was the first studio resident at the impressive CAST complex in Helston. A visit there reminds me of studying for my BA at Falmouth where palm tree surrounded studios, ship repairs in the docks, making and beachcombing merged in my every-day. A visit to Kestle Barton and its surroundings intensifies the senses of someone now long immersed in the city.
There is a different temporality in remoteness and Cornwall is saturated in myths and legends. A small ferryboat crosses the Helford Passage a ten-minute walk from the gallery. A gauzy pattern of bright green and white dried seaweed fronds, all moisture sucked out by the sun, laminated onto slate confuses my sense of art and life, isn’t there a gum made from seaweed? Death and time; a large jellyfish is slumped and partially baked onto rock, perhaps ballooning and reanimating as the tide comes in. To be immersed in such a dramatic local landscape, in the vivid impressions of Bealing’s mercurial prints and the strange intertwined beauty of both makes for a magically transformative journey.
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