Critique | Helena Gorey ‘Understory’

Jennie Taylor reviews Helena Gorey ‘Understory’ at Highlanes Gallery (29 April – 18 June 2022).

Helena Gorey, ‘Understory’, installation view, May 2022; photograph by Eugene Langan, courtesy the artist and Highlanes Gallery. Helena Gorey, ‘Understory’, installation view, May 2022; photograph by Eugene Langan, courtesy the artist and Highlanes Gallery.

‘Understory’, the title of Helena Gorey’s exhibition of paintings and works on paper, not only frames a collection of works but offers a mechanism for looking. The artist’s statement and individual titles point to characteristics and features of a place; general enough to be anywhere and specific enough to carry a consistent homage and respect for the natural landscape. Gorey’s paintings capture something between a sense of place, the works’ original home, their birth, their reason for becoming, and the experience of engaging with them. They trace histories of abstraction, most notably Mark Rothko (1903-1970), by being an event of looking, as much as resolved pieces of work. 

Contemporary iterations of abstraction emphasise painting’s ability to poetically declare an unknowable experience, or at least unknowable to anyone but the artist. Gorey works in the natural environment, indicated by small black and white photographs of her process which were displayed on entry to the exhibition.  Prominently hung, Proscenium (2017) adorned a thick, black-like border which pushed a heaving hue of deep reds peeping through the top of the surface and gently appearing in parts, where the eye allows – supported by a dominant off-white, warm square of loaded nothingness. 

A cluster of works suggested arrangements in a natural landscape. Cloudy whites were supported by leafy greens and purples. Solid but never impenetrable hues held the fort on what could have been the upper part of a horizon. Suggestive greens and earthed growth emerged in the likes of Spinney. Blues credited daylight and darker hours, hanging comfortably while edging on eye level. Blossom had its own horizon line, inviting the viewer to locate it from a bespoke distance. A small-scale, glossy-red piece, titled Woodbine, emulated the earth’s core and a deeply purpled work, Brindled, leaned on the wall, extending an already limitless series into the present moment, sharing the same gallery ground as anyone engaging with it.

Scope of sky and detail of a world underfoot were brought side by side in the same scale; Twilight (2017) had a charged white, like snow stuck to the surface of the sky, while Moss had a looser finish, dripping in seductive greens, as if making top-level piles out of nature’s carpet. Raw, nutmeg coloured linen played a part with neon lime and mystery colours in Seed. Bindweed (2011) and Blackberry (2013) showed how Gorey experiments with compositional decision-making, offering an irregular form. Mist was probably one of the most profoundly glowing works, echoing the beaming yellows found in the work of William McKeown (1962-2011) only here, variations on white glowed as if they had the same metaphysical reach as McKeown’s yellows. The exhibited paintings were like windows, only they didn’t just offer a sense of looking through but a sense of looking under, beneath the artist’s application, her decisions, her gaze and her lived experience of the natural landscape. Through this, she reveals her attention to subtle differences in light and the fulcrum of hand, brush, and surface. 

A separate, perhaps inherited, piece in the space which worked very well, was Caoimhe Kilfeather’s But a Hercules (2010), a mass of charcoal protruding from the wall, installed at a liminal height assuming a presence like a citation or a brief, swollen tangent. There was a similar approach to physicality of form in Gorey’s series of oil works on potato bags in which the crinkles and creases informed the compositional tones and lines.

A series of five works on paper echoed drawings by Agnes Martin (1912-2004). Small watercolour squares carried a horizon each, making multiples out of what could have been a singular sighting. A second room displayed small works, titled Darkening I-V, modestly on bulldog clips, in company with larger oil works, Sky (2017) and Night (2017), which offered a stark contrast of night and day, as if comparing the sky we cannot see at night, and the sky that is actually there.

What strikes me about Gorey’s painting is how her early introductions of colour skim the final applications of paint, making initial decisions complementary to later stages of the work. Once the eye clocks a bit of underlying colour, a trust in the invisible kicks in, making surface a breathing thing. A range of literature, including Gorey’s past exhibition catalogues, accompanied the exhibition, acting as reminders of the significance of this work, its own history, and how abstraction can extend, and make portable, the essence of a specific place.

Jennie Taylor is an art writer living and working in Dublin.