The Portico Library’s gallery space seeks to provide a creative space at the heart of Manchester, supporting artists of the region and beyond. Hosting a wide variety of exhibitions throughout the year, the gallery showcases the talents of established and emerging artists working in a diverse range of styles and media. The Gallery also hosts many exhibitions which promotes their collections and partnerships with other institutions locally, regionally and nationally.
For the Portico’s October 2015 exhibition award-winning contemporary artist Helen Wheeler is showing a selection of new and existing work that responds to the two-hundred-year-old library and its collection. Helen’s beautiful and fragile work caught our attention so we decided to find out a little bit more about her for our Meet a Maker series.
Tell us about your exhibition at The Portico Gallery?
I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to exhibit at the historic Portico Library & Gallery in Manchester City Centre. For anyone who does not know, the Portico is a subscription library which opened in 1806 as a library and newsroom and still exists to this day in its beautiful original grade 2 listed building.
For this exhibition I really wanted to incorporate the sense of discovery, experimentation and history held within the Portico Library and its collection into the pieces I created and chose to exhibit. Not only by utilising their unique setting and antique display cases as part of my work but also by referencing their extensive and diverse 19th century collection, selecting key texts that both connected to and inspired my work. I chose “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus” Mary Shelley (1818), “Lectures on Various Forces of Matter” Michael Faraday (1859), “The Human Body : Nine Physiological Diagrams” John Marshall (1860) and “The Moon” by Nasmyth & Carpenter (1874). These books are on show as part of the exhibition.
I have been pleased to be able to make two bespoke sculptures for the Portico’s antique display cases; these sculptures were created using magnetism, gravity and time. I like the idea that my exploration of a rather chaotic process has created something which is highly recognisable and yet still alien. The iron filings change over time to iron oxide (an orange paint pigment (rust)) and I really enjoy this process. It connects to my love of dark room photography processing where I get to see the image being revealed as it develops, it adds another layer to the work for me, an aspect of revelation and transformation. As with photography I am also able to control this process to a small degree – halting the development of the colour by encapsulating the sculptures in a case of some form. I chose to use glass for its material and metaphorical properties pertaining to fragility, strength and its specific transparency.
What materials do you use within your practice?
I tend to focus my practice around themes relating to apocalypse, health, science and the aesthetic theory of ‘the sublime’, so I choose to use materials which have specific properties and/or a conceptual relationship to my ideas. This allows me to be experimental with both material and process when I work; as such my practice encompasses drawing, sculpture, photography and painting.
The pieces in this exhibition use materials which incorporate chemicals that can be found in the body – iron, calcium, phosphates to name a few. Calcium and phosphates are constituents in the pigments used in all the drawings and paintings currently on show and I use iron within my sculptural landscapes.
I have used museum quality glass for all the framing and to cover my sculpture titled “Bygone future”, aiming to connect to themes of preservation and conservation. This glass is designed to transmit the most light, giving the clearest view with the least reflection and includes UV filters to protect the work beneath. This is a very different material to the blown glass objects I have included, “begin well, end better” and “23”, through which I have been exploring the materiality of glass, pushing it to its structural limits and using my own body to control its movement and form. Both of these works relate strongly to anatomical representations.
Where do you produce your work?
I have recently moved to a new studio at Bankley Gallery & Studios in Levenshulme which affords me great light and the space to think about my work effectively. However I also often create my work at home, on the bus or outdoors, whichever is most convenient at the time. My glass pieces are created at Manchester School of Art in their Glass workshops which are excellent. I am really fortunate that I am able to gain access to this facility through my MFA studies.
Where do you draw your inspiration from and which artists have informed your practice?
I take my inspiration from everywhere I possibly can. I don’t just contain it to the art world. Nature, science, philosophy, history, mathematics and poetry are all great influences on me.
Art-wise I would say Leonardo Da Vinci, his silverpoint anatomy drawings, Louise Bourgeois’ drawings, especially her insomnia series. Piotr Janas, a polish painter who creates paintings of highly visceral forms against hard edged machine-like structures, Sigma Polke, Hughie O’Donoghue, Gordon Cheung, William Sasnel and David Schnell. Mark Zirpel and Annie Cattrell, Katja Strunz, Anya Gallaccio, Dove Bradshaw and Giuseppe Penone – there are too many to mention. Marilene Oliver’s “Family Portrait” is particularly interesting to me as it is a sculpture created out of
multiple MRI scans and I think John Martin deserves a mention too as his apocalyptic visions from the 19th Century have been a huge inspiration to me in the past. I could go on…
How do you find using both modern and historical technology within your work and what technologies do you use?
I have a really keen interest in process and materials and a huge appreciation of historic techniques which to some extent are being lost – you could consider these to be craft techniques perhaps, but I like to think of them as alchemical processes and tools to further my ideas. For example, in my drawings and paintings I make and use my own handmade watercolour paints so I can control the material and physical properties of the paint. I also create silverpoint drawings using both 24ct gold and silver wire, a drawing material that Leonardo Da Vinci (amongst others) historically used. Conceptually I like the idea of working with precious metals as a metaphor for the preciousness of life and health. I enjoy the way the metal wire does not really look like anything special when you draw with it; its rarity becomes devalued and overlooked. I strive to use these more traditional materials and methods in a contemporary manner.
I also use both analogue and digital photography and processing within my work and find interest in the slippage between the two. Often digitising and editing my analogue photographs, drawings and paintings only to convert my digital photographs back into analogue darkroom prints. An example of this would be the piece “Points of Duality” included in the exhibition, where I have taken a fragmentary composite digital image, ran it through a specific process to create a ‘mock’ infra-red image and then converted it into a negative which was processed in a darkroom using silver gelatine paper & developer, a very hands-on technique. This process initially began through my experimentations with analogue infra-red film. The building in this piece is the UK infra-red telescope located in Hawaii – an anachronistic style of building, which almost looks like something out of a science fiction movie.
What advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?
To be honest I consider myself as still just starting out, but I think the best advice I can give is to keep making art, keep thinking, keep looking, keep exhibiting, go out and see art and most of all keep experiencing life.
What have you got lined up after Build a Wor(l)d with ‘ing’?
Well, whilst the exhibition is still taking place I am giving a talk about the Victorian artist John Martin on Tuesday 27th October, 1pm at The Portico and I am also giving an Artist Talk and Tour on the 31st October, 1pm at the Portico to end my exhibition. During this talk I will be talking more in-depth about the concepts behind the work in the exhibition and the various processes and techniques that I use.
As I have just moved into my new studio, I have quite a bit of work setting it up properly and this is something I am really looking forward to. This year for me is going to be about consolidating my practice. I have been learning glass blowing for eighteen months now and that has been a huge impact on my time as such I am looking forward to having more time to concentrate on a broader practice and of course I will be continuing to read for my Masters of Fine Art (MFA) at MMU in the summer.
And finally, where can people see your work?
I am always open to exhibition opportunities and you can find about them on my website or via my Twitter account. We have an annual Open Studios event at Bankley Studios in October where all the artists open up their studios to the public for the weekend so that is a really great opportunity to come down and not only see my work, but a lot of other artists’ work as well. It can be a great insight into how different artists set up their studios and make work.
Helen Wheeler – Build a Wor(l)d with ‘ing’
Fri 2 – Sat 31 October
The Portico Library
57 Mosley Street
Mon 9.30-16.30, Tue-Thu 9.30-17.30, Fri 9.30-16.30, Sat 11.00-15.00, Sunday Closed