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Meet the artist:  Helen Beard

Meet the artist: Helen Beard

Helen Beard has had a meteoric rise to fame over the past three years. Following exhibitions at Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery and a sell-out show at Reflex Amsterdam, Beard is fast becoming known for her bright, bold and evocative large-scale paintings.  Depicting sex, love and intimacy, Beard's work is bringing female sexuality to the forefront of the art world.

To celebrate her paintings going on display across the W1 Curates screens that wrap FLANNELS London flagship on Oxford Street, we sat down with the artist to talk clothes, colour and why we’re all craving her kisses this year.  

What can we expect to see on display? 
It’s quite a lot of different work from the last three years. It’s concentrating on a lot of kisses and bottoms and things, so they were more acceptable to put onto Oxford Street, not so explicit. I think a lot of my work is too explicit to put on the screens… we’ve chosen a good variety of stuff that isn’t so contentious.

It is a very public spot…
Yes! What is lovely about it is that it showcases the colour that I use, which is really one of the most important things in my work. It looks amazing on the screens and you can really see how vibrant a lot of it is. Because Mark [from W1 Curates] has really blown up the pieces, you get the brush strokes and you can really see the textures of the painting. You get a lot of detail.

Why is colour so important to your art?
A lot of the work is about sex, so the juxtaposition of two clashing colours gives you a frisson that you would get in a sexual encounter. I think it really helps to describe the emotion in the painting. That’s why colour is so important; it’s a tool for describing and making people feel something about the painting.

Touch is something that has hugely been missing from our lives in 2020…
Exactly. Kisses are really important this year. They’ve been my absolute bestseller because everyone is just missing that human contact. We just didn’t imagine a world where we weren’t able to touch our friends or hold hands. It’s really highlighted how important that physical affection is. We took it so for granted. It’s really something that people are wanting to see visually because they can’t experience it physically anymore.

What do you want people to take away from your paintings?
People describe me as unapologetic about sexuality and I think it’s really important for a woman to have that voice in this time. And I’m so pleased that it is giving people something that they’re missing this year. I just feel it’s a really important time to focus on women and their needs, their desires as well as… it’s just been so traditionally a male gaze and it’s fantastic that something as public as Oxford Street is showing women’s worth, not hiding people that cover subjects like I do as well. Trying to push it. I know we’ve used a lot of the less explicit paintings, but it will allude to the other stuff that I do and hopefully highlight the importance of seeing things from a women’s point of view.

It’s crazy that in 2020 female sexuality is still such a taboo…
I think that’s the thing. Through the generations, through the centuries, women have always managed to be able to talk about it between themselves, with friends, but it’s something that is almost denied as a… a woman’s desire is something that is so unacceptable in society that it’s not been highlighted at all and, even though women between themselves discuss it all the time, it’s such a taboo in society.

How do you create your art?
Lots of things will spark an interest. If I see a kiss in a magazine, I’ll rip it out and work on drawings from that. I have used pornography in the past, I’ve used all different material sources, I’ll collect a load of images and then draw from that on a small scale. Once I’m happy with the drawing I’ll work out colours and make sure I’ve got that tension - that excitement - on the small scale, and then I’ll re-project my original drawing onto a big canvas. Quite often my work is very impactful because it’s huge and putting that small tender moment of a kiss into such a massive canvas, that changes the dynamic of it. It’s powerful when it gets bigger.

Your work is very graphic and abstract in places.
I like to play with the abstractions of shapes and bodies. Quite often people will look it and they can’t see what’s going on for ages but obviously to me – because I’ve seen the original image – I can see it as what it is: two bodies engaging in sex. But other people will see strange things in it.

Are there any artists that really inspire you?
At the moment, I’m really enjoying Etel Adnan because of the simplicity of the forms, but there are so many influences. Growing up I absolutely loved Gary Hume for his big, flat areas of colour. One of my favourites is ‘Four Feet in the Garden’, which is the bottom of four people’s feet in a square and I just like the way that it’s depicting something real but it’s so abstract in its realisation. He was a big influence. I love the humour of Sarah Lucas. The fact that she talks about sex a lot and its quite often in a humorous way, and again in an unapologetic way, that a woman is quite capable of really enjoying sex, finding it funny, so I really like her take on depicting that.

Your big break came via Damien Hirst on Snapchat. What has he been like to work with?
He’s amazing, he’s been such a brilliant mentor. He was the one that encouraged me to work on a really big scale and that made the paintings so impactful. It was such good advice. He’s such a champion of my work, he absolutely loves it. He bought the entire first show that I did at Newport Street [his gallery] and he’s constantly asking to collect more.

Do you see a relationship between art and fashion?
I do absolutely love fashion, I’m often spending too much money on it. I’ve been talking to a brand about doing a collaboration next autumn. Hopefully, we’ll be doing a kimono and swimwear and things. I’m really excited about translating my images onto clothes. 

And what about your style?
I’ve just bought a Simone Rocha dress. I’m really quite obsessed with colour and they’re usually really vibrant, so that’s what I go for. Even if I’m having a phone call, I still tend to dress up. I will always get dressed as if I’m not going to paint in the morning and then I’ll get here and change into overalls.

Helen Beard will be on display at W1 Curates at FLANNELS London until 29 November 2020.