Welcome to Helen Eager's Colourful World

Helen Eager’s large wall painting is set to dance along the smart new entrance foyer of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art at the end of March. Plus, a retrospective of her work is on show at Utopia Art Sydney. It’s time to take a fresh look at this mid-career artist, writes Susie Burge


Above: Helen Eager in her studio (photo: Susie Burge)

Artist Helen Eager has spent the last three decades quietly drawing, painting and printmaking. Yes, she achieved recognition young, being picked up by Sydney’s respected Watters Gallery for her first solo show in 1977, awarded a Visual Arts Board travel grant in 1980, and a residency in the Australia Council studio in NYC with her partner (artist & gallerist) Christopher Hodges in 1988, but over the years there’s been scant mainstream media coverage given to her work. Apart from the occasional blip, on the whole she’s flown under the radar.

Eager is an abstractionist. She paints deceptively simple forms, with a flair for colour, precise line, and subtle variation of shade, tone, angle. She’s concerned with visual interplay and movement - relationships between shapes, how they touch, how they mirror and echo, how they expand and contract and shift; how colour and light communicate; the interaction of positive and negative space. Her oeuvre has developed in incremental, modest, exploratory steps over many years. There is nothing shouty about her. A relatively small circle of people know her work – dedicated collectors (she’s represented in the National Gallery of Australia and some significant private and corporate collections), regular gallery goers. Until now. A key commission from Sydney’s MCA to coincide with museum’s much hyped reopening after a major 53 million dollar renovation has thrust Eager into the limelight.

“These chances don’t happen very often,” she smiles, blue eyes sparkling, after agreeing that yes, this is a career highlight (“After 35 years? Absolutely!”) “It’s a rare opportunity,” she continues more soberly, sincerely pleased. “I was ready to take the challenge.”

The challenge involved devising and creating a large painting – titled Tango - on an oddly-shaped wall, roughly 15 metres long and 7 metres high at the widest point, that runs alongside the staircase linking the Circular Quay entrance of the museum with the George Street entrance. It took the artist 8 months of planning and drawing and experimenting in the studio – “and thinking,” says Eager. Not to mention the installation challenges of painting from scaffolding and with a scissor lift in a hard-hat construction zone with 3 assistants. A tad confronting for a perfectionist who usually precisely, quietly, works alone. Methods had to change too: Eager paints in oils, for this project it had to be acrylic; she usually finishes the white ground last, for this project it had to be first - the wall. Colours needed to be tested and adjusted. New methods found to achieve the desired result. The MCA has bought the work, meaning that at a later date it can be taken down and in the future recreated according to her detailed instructions, like the famous wall drawings of Sol LeWitt.


Above: Working drawings and studies for Tango, Helen Eager's studio interior (photo: Susie Burge)

Eager names LeWitt as an influence, along with Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley. Her roots are in 60s and 70s abstraction. But in Tango, something more elemental comes to the fore. “I wanted it to be joyous,” Eager says. “Tango because it’s a dance, because you’ve got to interact.” She mentions Matisse’s The Dance, Mondrain’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. And indeed, if you cross these two pictures in your mind, Eager’s painting is perhaps what you’d get, except not necessarily in orange. “I think orange is a lovely colour, a gregarious colour.” She chose it for energy in an entrance foyer, and as a foil to the blues and greens of the harbour beyond. The three shades of orange were inspired by masses of nasturtiums in her garden. She has photographs of the flowers pinned to her studio wall, next to the drawings and plans for Tango. Further along the huge purpose-built studio wall is the test panel – floating triangular shapes against a pure white ground, like bits of bunting broken free from their mooring, or kites with imaginary strings.

Eager began by painting interiors, then the shape and form of things started to take over, grow larger and out of proportion, become loosed from containing rooms. At some point the interiors became the great outdoors and her tricolour paintings took on the titles of the world’s tallest mountains. It’s interesting to see the progression – revealed in Colour and Light, her retrospective at Utopia Art Sydney. Frequently, Eager brings her impulse back to interiors (Matisse again) and yet, her most recent work – of which Tango is a part, an extension – feels most of all airy, like a flock of abstracted birds, or the triangulation of stars. The background plays an equal part. In limiting herself to three shades of a colour and equilateral triangles, the symmetrical simplicity seems liberating.

Simplicity, of course, is often hard won. Close examination reveals technical expertise, and how much little things – how angles touch here, and ever so slightly differently there - matter. However, a real sense of freshness remains. Will Helen Eager’s Tango become the unofficial logo of the new MCA? With modernist roots (compatible with architect Sam Marshall’s extension) and vivid graphic appeal, there’s an appealing sense of optimism. Welcome, the painting seems to say, let’s play.

Susie Burge, all rights reserved.

Helen Eager’s Tango will be unveiled at the opening of the new MCA on March 29, 2012
See Helen Eager’s Colour and Light at Utopia Art Sydney March 24 – April 28, 2012