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Welcome To The Pleasuredome: Helen Beard Interviewed
Bárbara Borges de Campos , September 7th, 2019 08:37

With a major new exhibition opening this weekend at Unit London, Helen Beard talks to Bárbara Borges de Campos about female desire and getting her break from Damien Hirst

It is impossible to be indifferent to Helen Beard’s work. She portrays sexuality in raw and bold canvases. All without fail filled with expression, colour, an acute sense of framing, and an unmistakable interplay between abstraction and realism. I spoke to the Brighton-based artist ahead of her largest solo show to date, It’s Her Factory, to open in UNIT London this weekend. I confess this was an intimidating prospect. They do say never meet your heroes, so as I dialled her number I felt a tinge of trepidation.

“I just think it’s ridiculous female sexuality is not talked about very much in society,” Beard tells me over the phone. “It’s a fairly hidden, closeted thing still.” Erotic or pornographic, you may wonder? But thinking of her work in either of these terms diminishes what Beard is trying to achieve, as she herself says, “I think both terms are reductive… it shows a lack of imagination when you’re talking about something as universal as sex to reduce to it to one of those two terms.” Her work challenges notions of women as passive observants and as desireless. “It’s about patriarchy, isn’t it?” she says. “if it’s not recognised that women have sexual desires then it’s not important, their ideas about sex are not important. It keeps it in a male dominated world, and it’s a lot easier for the patriarchal world to ignore female desire”.

One of Beard’s first exhibitions was at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in London. Her work was featured in a group show, Simulation Skin. When I asked her how this came about, Beard explains that her husband, a designer and Hirst’s creative director, was stuck at home in Brighton, because of a train strike. He sent a Snapchat of a Halloween costume to Hirst, who was back in London. “Then Damien was like, ‘yeah, I like the Halloween costume but what are the paintings behind you?’” The rest, as they say, is history.

Beard reminisces about what this experience was like, and I ask her if she ever felt any anxiety or worry as to what the reception of her work would be. “The night before the True Colours show … I e-mailed Damien and said ‘ahh I’m really scared actually as to what the response is going to be…’” Despite Beard‘s tinge of trepidation, response to her work has been nothing but positive. Provocative, imaginative, empowerment are just some of the adjectives that have come to be associated with her work.

Purple Heart (2018) was the first painting of Beard’s I came across. I was immediately drawn to the composition. This large scale painting (2050 x 1745 mm) shows the organicism of sexuality. The shapes are at once recognisable, simultaneously intertwined and abstract. The painting portrays a close up of penetration, the buttocks’ roundness makes me think this is a man and a woman, but Beard leaves that to your imagination. The angle is also arresting: a low-angle shot that recalls Beard’s experience in cinema (she worked in the film industry for fifteen years, first doing wardrobe and set design, later as an art director). The bodies merge into a single shape. Aside from the identifiable penis and buttocks, it is hard to distinguish which forms correspond to which body. This is not simply left to chance. As Beard herself notes, sexuality is complex, “the forms and the colours are indistinguishable and quite powerful”.

The angle and framing of this painting contradicts the ubiquitous patterns of the male gaze. Though pornography utilises zoomed in shots, it usually revolves around the female body and the way men observe it. Here the same proximity is used to show the entanglement of two protagonists. “I do love the abstraction I get from a very zoomed in point of view,” Beard tells me, “where the forms and the colours are indistinguishable and quite powerful. But I also like the very complex narratives in paintings that have got a wider framing, both have their merits in different ways.” The Mirror (2018) is one of these paintings, a diptych of two panels of 3226 x 2743 mm, each displaying the same imaged mirrored. At closer inspection you will notice there is a pattern in the polychromatic scheme, as colours shift from one figure to another. For example, the ochre colour of the man’s arm is reflected in the woman’s leg.

The more I talked to Beard and thought about her work in terms of its radical opposition to male dominated visions, the more it seemed that this was a stand, a deliberate and self-conscious protest. But I wondered if she saw her work in these terms. “I think that I am a feminist, and I think that the work is seen in that way. But I’m not trying to make a grand statement about how women behave. I just think it’s important those ideas are out there… it definitely is a reaction to the fact that sexuality is not talked about in its diverse forms…” Beard does not necessarily position her work as activist, but she does find that there is an element of the partisan in her painting. “I guess that my art is guerrilla,” she says, “in that I’m not formally taught but I’m finding a way to talk about sexuality with my instinct.”

I was delighted to hear Beard use the word instinct, because that is truly the word that captures her work for me. From her use of colour and shape, to the way she handles her subject matter, to the theme itself, it is all about being instinctual. Having an affinity to draw out from intimacy the universality of sexual experiences from a female perspective.

Before our conversation comes to an end Beard leaves me with a teaser of her forthcoming sculptural piece. “Well the sculpture piece is an idea i’ve had in my head for about twenty years. About eighteen years ago I imported a few thousand vibrators from china, they have been sitting in my loft waiting for me to make this piece. What can you expect? What you can expect is noise, you can expect loudness from this sculpture.”

Yes, Beard’s work has been largely applauded, but there is still some sensationalism when it comes to Beard. “It adds sensationalism,” she grants, “oh a woman is doing this? People can’t believe that women want to make work like this…” It seems preposterous that it is still taboo for women to discuss, have an interest in, and actively participate in sex, sexual discourse, and representation. These last couple of years have proved that this is still very much a patriarchal world, controlling women’s bodies and their representation is still the norm. So, yes, her work is revolutionary in our current context. Sadly, it is still not normal for women to discuss sex and desire, but, as Beard says: “just because I’m a female doesn’t mean I’m not interested in sex.”

Helen Beard, It's Her Factory, is at Unit London from 7 September to 6 October