Helen O'Leary grew up in rural Ireland in the the 60s and 70s, where her mother's philosophy was "if you can't make it, you can't have it." In her 2010 Guggenheim application she wrote that this spirit of creativity and "making do" carries over into her work:
Throughout my career, I have been constructing a very personal and idiomatic formal language based in simple materials and unglamorous gestures, a framework which functions as a kind of syntactical grid of shifting equivalences. The “paintings” that emerge from this process know their family history, a narrative of greatness fallen on hard times. Yet, for all that, they remain remarkably un-defensive, wobbly, presuming no need to disavow the past or defy the present....
My new work delves into my own history as a painter, rooting in the ruins and failures of my own studio for both subject matter and raw material. I have disassembled the wooden structures of previous paintings—the stretchers, panels, and frames—and have cut them back to rudimentary hand-built slabs of wood, glued and patched together, their history of being stapled, splashed with bits of paint, and stapled again to linen clearly evident. The residual marks on the frames, coupled with their internal organization, begin to form a constellation of densities, implying an idiomatic syntax of organic fluctuation where compact spaces coexist with the appearance of gaping holes where the rickety bridges have given way. Formal and structural concerns become inseparable, the slippery organization of their fluctuating grids showing a transparency both literal and historical. With both serenity and abandon, these structures imagine the possibility that painting might take root and find a place to press forward into fertile new terrain.
On the occasion of her forthcoming solo exhibition at the Irish Arts Center, "The Geometry of Dirt," I asked O'Leary to put together a list of the things that she's thinking about.
[Image at top: Work in progress in O'Leary's studio]