Helen Sear is cited on page 20 of the course notes (specifically the series’ ‘Inside the View’ and ‘Beyond the View’) as an artist who “uses manipulation, layering and colour to create highly aesthetic images where the interplay of subject and ground is constantly in play.”
Alexander (2012) states that Sear’s art is difficult to define and that themes of nature, feminism and the landscape recur: “Her work is unpredictable yet exhibits unwavering intellectual engagement with diverse subjects, ranging from contemporary developments in the field of neuroscience to obscure corners of art history.”
Chandler (2006) describes Sear as one of photography’s foremost innovators, and, “for her the medium is one of magic as much as realism.” She is concerned with both the craft and our habits of looking, her photographic montages create a third meaning from the combined elements.
Sear describes her relationship with photography in her practice like this: “Using the camera…I have attempted to recuperate the body into the act of looking and explore the corporeality of vison through various processes of layering, drawing, excavating and rupturing, both in the still and the moving image.” (Chandler, 2012)
I have no idea how these haunting black and white images are made but find them to be immediately powerful and troubling. The head and shoulders portraits are stark using highly contrasted tones which are only softened because due to a lack of sharpness in the image – something that is dramatically opposed to the deep black and bright white tones. I am reminded of the subliminal images of the demon in ‘The Exorcist’ which fleetingly appear on screen in this film and it seems that Sear is commenting on the darkness that is in us all and is both clearly visible and obscured, perhaps this is also a challenge to the notion that the photographic portrait can in any way reveal the character of the sitter.
(See Valerie Reardon article here)
Images of stuffed birds are layered with the outlines of trees which act as a kind of frame for the animal. The trees are transformed into single tone silhouettes which emphasis the artifice of the image, suggested further as reality is literally punched out of the image with the eyes of the creatures apparently cut out.
Chandler (2012) notes that Sear often uses animals in her work “to register a complex psychological geography of desire and loss in relation to the nature and
access (or escape) to that other, transgressive space of the feminine.” Animals are both “alluring and exotic…yet forever compromised and illusory.” This is literally so in the case of the stuffed birds Sear photographs here. (See also: Natural Habitat (1991), Gone to Earth (1994), Grounded (2000), Still – a landscape in ten parts (2002), Display (2008))
He continues, “the works invite touch, they proffer the warmth of fur and skin, of freshly preened feathers, but of course they give none of these things; they are flat surfaces, or emanations of light, only pictures of dead life that we might begin to imagine ourselves into.”
See also: Klompching Gallery
This series has the ongoing motif of a photograph of the back of a female head and shoulders layered with a pastoral scene. There appears to be texture on the image and it is unclear whether this is something that has been added or part of either picture. It is also unclear whether the initial instinct that these are two images composited together is correct, the more I look the less certain I am about what I am seeing. To have the female head and shoulders facing away from the viewer is enigmatic and in a literal reading suggests the beginning of a journey, or less literally, a mental state. Is this a deliberate strategy to deny the gaze of the viewer or a possible comment on the male gaze? Is this simply the figure contemplating the scene ahead of them? The figure also appears to be out of focus and floating which gives a dream like quality that could be a comment on psychanalysis and theories of the self. Alexander (2012) sees the influence of Casper David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’ (c. 1818) which suggests romanticism: “the obfuscation in Sear’s images, which demands the eye render some visual order from this beautiful chaos, sets up for the viewer a challenging inquiry into the sublime.”
Chandler (2006) compares ‘Inside the View’ to the William Henry Fox Talbot’s early ‘photographic drawings’ of black lace photograms. Both works demonstrate the paradox of the photograph as both lacking surface and being “intimate, close and tactile.” The combination of portrait and landscape images generate a third meaning when they are brought together – despite giving the impression that the women in the images are contemplating the landscape, Sear suggests a less literal, immersive, mindscape which could be read as comment against the inherent realism of the photographic image. In his 2012 essay ‘Seeing in the dark’, Chandler describes Sear’s digital blending of images as “metaphysical merging” which, suspends “the implied photographic moment further and [extends] it through time.” The resulting artwork articulates the “intangible act of thinking into space.”
Outline images of what appears to be birds either in an enclosure or in trees are abstracted into a kind of mosaic with diamond shapes of varying colours overlayered.
See also: Klompching Gallery
‘Beyond the View’ expands on ‘Inside the View’ by emphasising the artifice of the combined images. Rather than melding into one, elements of the background scenes such as flowers and leaves are brought into the foreground which gives the appearance that these elements are puncturing or even embroidered upon the head and shoulders of the female figures, or as Alexander (2012) describes, the process “picks out holes to form an intricate, lace-like patina across the ‘surface’ of the image.”
See also: Klompching Gallery
This series develops ideas in ‘Inside the View’ and ‘Beyond the View’ by presenting a head and shoulders portrait of a female figure obscured by the figurine of a bird. Like the earlier works, the viewer is unable to identify the sitter but this work is much more direct, confrontational and frustrating because the women are facing towards rather than away from us and although it is clear the bird placed in front of the sitters faces are added by the artist, they are sharp rather than artfully layered, and apparently deliberately left to force us to look at the empty eyes of the birds rather than that of the sitters. The frustration felt when looking at these images is surprising, despite knowing that the obscured figure behind the bird is as much a representation as the bird itself there is a strong sense of wanting to feel a connection which is denied.
Alexander, J. (2012) Review: Inside the view by Helen Sear. Available at: https://www.photomonitor.co.uk/inside-the-view/ [accessed 16th January 2019]
Campany, D. (2006) Helen Sear: Inside the view. Photoworks, Autumn/Winter 2006. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/helen-sear- inside-the-view/ [accessed 15th February 2019]
Chandler, D. (2012) Helen Sear: Seeing in the Dark. Available at: http://220.127.116.11/~helensear.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/inside-the- view.pdf [accessed 25th February 2019]
Falcini, A. (2013) Helen Sear – Lure. A-N Website. Available at: https://www.a- n.co.uk/p/2975175/ [accessed 25th February 2019]
Hickling, A. (2003) Helen Sear. The Guardian, 21st August 2003. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/aug/21/art [accessed 15th February 2019]
Huddleston, Y. (2019) Artist Helen Sear’s nature exhibition in Bradford. The Yorkshire Post, 1st February 2019. Available at: https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/what-s-on/arts/artist-helen-sear-s-nature- exhibition-in-bradford-1-9571687 [accessed 15th February 2019]
Reardon, V. (1998) Helen Sear: Anderson O’Day Fine Art. Art Monthly #216. Available at: http://18.104.22.168/~helensear.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/art-monthly.pdf [accessed 28th February 2019]