Helen Sear’s artistic work explores the capacity and limitations of the photographic medium.
It was this exploration which saw her become the first woman to represent Wales with a solo show at the Venice Biennale in 2015.
The origins of her latest solo exhibition, Fascination, lie in the natural and direct approach children have to the world around them and its living organisms.
Formally the photographs in the exhibition share no common features.
On the other hand the gathering together of these works manifests the diversity of the artist – and thus also what the photograph can do as a medium.
Aesthetically, the exhibited works all involve an element of this ‘childlike’ immediacy and fascination with the world. The imagination points the way.
In the series Diviner willow trees at the edge of the Lac de Cercey in France were photographed over two years.
The imprints on the trunks show the water level in the area was once higher.
Now the thick fibrous tap roots have been left high and dry. These roots look to Sear like the large hoop skirts that the women of the Spanish Court wore in the seventeenth century.
“These ‘skirts’ reminded me of the hooped dresses, guardainfante, of the Spanish court painted by Velasquez,” she said.
“So there is a simultaneous exploration of display and camouflage.
“I decorated individual trees with wild flowers growing at the site before photographing them.
“These ‘portraits’ have been given the individual names of mythological goddesses associated with either willow or water.
“The duotone colour in the photographs reinstates the past water level and also refers to older methods of adding tints, dyes and filters to black and white photographs.
“In my imagination the decoration of these roots will lure the water back in the same way that a Bowerbird decorates its bower and courtship zone, to attract a mate.
“It is often the case that the Bowerbird will select a single colour to decorate the nest with.
“While the guardainfante dresses camouflaged illicit pregnancies, it has been suggested the male Bowerbird has a higher success rate in mating when the objects he arranges have a strong optical illusion or constructed perspective.”
Twice Once: 2XDH
In the series Twice Once: 2XDH we see portraits of Sear’s friends, taken in the 1990s.
Two negatives were combined and bent so only the edges touched the paper in the darkroom. The prints were then re-photographed and printed.
The resulting photograph both reveals and conceals something and in the end lets the imagination decide which is right.
Sear believes a photograph can help to influence our understanding of how we see, experience and relate to the world, guiding us towards certain views and attitudes.
On one hand it is a constructed, manipulated object, but the other hand manifests a duality, as we associate it with something real.
A photograph allows us to explore the imaginary.
Helen Sear (b. 1955) read Fine Art at Reading University and the Slade School, University College, London.
Her work was prominent in the British Council’s exhibition DeComposition: Constructed Photography in Britain in 1991, which toured Latin America and eastern Europe.
It features in collections at the National Museum of Wales, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Council.
Helen Sear: Fascination is on at the Martin Asbæk Gallery, Copenhagen, until Saturday, April 21.
Spectrum Photographic produced 5 x Hahnemühle Fine Art Pearl 285gsm prints for the Diviner series.
For more information visit www.martinasbaek.com.
Main image: Helen Sear, Fascination, Martin Asbaek Gallery, photo by David Stjernholm
Copy editing by Sheena Campbell.