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Helen Bur - Duality in Form and Function

Words:

Edd Norval
May 6, 2019

Helen Bur is difficult to define. Her paintings, whether on canvas with thickly applied paint or on the walls of cities across the world, have a certain emotional poignancy that's neither quite contemporary nor classic. Honest depictions of very human moments give her paintings a dual existence whose truths prevail in both mediums.

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Take Bur's piece for Urban Vision street art festival in Italy's Acquapendente as a case in point. Italy's relationship with immigration is strained at the moment, with activists, campaigners and politicians on both sides pushing and pulling with their arguments for and against the movement of people. Each side has valid points and concerns, each side also rely on cheap shots and misinformation. What happened as a result is the difficult issue became a battleground.


Faulty statistics, skewed data and tricky wordplay all entered the political lexicon as support was drummed up for both camps, completely forgetting what was in the middle. The rope they were pulling for political clout wasn't a rope at all, but a chain of people. Immigrants soon became a pawn in a game of point scoring between two opponents, neither of whom seemed to care about what it was that their points hinged on.


With the intensity of a burning poker, yet the subtlety of melancholic expression, essential when depicting such a complex issue, Bur put the people back into the frame - a grounding exercise for the conflicting parties, a stark reminder of the real-life effects of their arguments.

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A lot of Bur's work is socially and politically motivated, although never so overtly that the art itself becomes a vehicle for her perspective. The artistry, the intricacy and the depth of feeling always takes precedence. Drawing from her studio work, the pieces are steeped in realism, relatable to the images that we regularly encounter in the news media.


Their composition verges on surrealism though, as if several images and scenarios are sewn together to create a tapestry of stories, each one telling their own tale, yet combining to make a grander statement. Her jigsaw-like approach to muralism seems to borrow from the Mexican school in its choice of a muted palette, derived mainly from a historical context, bestowing the pieces with a grit that erodes the varnish coating that obfuscates the way our media covers events.


Sensitive and suggestive treatments of serious issues is few and far between in art, with social commentary becoming increasingly associated with ham-fisted, instant impact illustration - images that don't require, nor provoke much thought, but are easily digestible when viewed on our social media feeds. In this sense, Bur is an outlier.

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Producing contemplative pieces is an aim of Bur's who tries to slow down the way we process information, to take the sting out of our judgement by slowing it down, giving us an opportunity to correctly disseminate the salacious and provocative comments that accompany them. It's no longer the narrative that we are given, but one that Bur gives us the power to hold.


In people she sees duality, two sides to explore in two ways - street and studio. Possibilities and problems attract Bur for the questions they pose and the solutions that they'll eventually yield. By painting them, and helping us to understand them, Bur too is attempting to decode the layers of humanity and inhumanity, our angelic selves and our propensity for evil. If nature finds its balance when untouched, people are constantly being contacted, fluctuating our equilibrium daily.


Her reverence for masters like Goya and Velasquez bleed through in her expressive strokes and cerebral style. Still, they're fundamentally contemporary creations, a reflection of our times. In Bur's work we see how our constant exposure to news media impacts an individual's psyche and how they resultantly interpret the world. In that way, it's more personal than we'd ever have imagined. It's the perfect centre point in the Venn diagram between the world as seen by others and the world as felt by ourselves.

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