SourceAustralian Print Symposium
Country of context
Helen Wright - processes and images.
by Penny Mason
Helen Wright’s recent images “… index plants in a garden of earthly delights somewhere in a Utopian nowhere place landscape”  neatly encapsulate the theme of this symposium, ‘Reproduction in the Australasian Region’. Her suite, Impossible flower 2000, directly refers to links between technology and cultural practices, ranging from food production to the imaginative processes of image-making.
Some of you will have had the opportunity of seeing Helen Wright’s recent exhibition of drawings and digitally generated images either at Dick Bett Gallery in Hobart, Niagara Galleries in Melbourne or at Helen Maxwell Gallery in Canberra last year (2000). The exhibition, Future perfect, marked a substantial technical addition to the lithographic and pastel drawing processes usually employed by Wright. Impossible flower, a boxed set of digital inkjet prints, was part of this exhibition. Technical expansion introduced of several new dimensions to Wright’s work.
This latest work is introduced through titles which can be distinctly polemical. Where the work has been created through digital technology, the surfaces are often sumptuous, suggestive of lace, embroidery and brocade. Other pieces from this exhibition retain her more familiar spare singularity.
In many ways Helen Wright’s work is a celebration of the feminine. Where the human form occurs it is always female, the objects she depicts are often the accoutrements of the boudoir: mirrors, false eyelashes and perfume bottles. Where instruments appear, they may be sewing needles or pincushions. Fabrics and lengths of hair coil and hover in loops and arabesques. Vessels, even from the laboratory, somehow convey a seductive, if somewhat sinister, allure. These objects carry a great weight of meanings, histories and associations.
In earlier work this very feminine content tends towards a certain severity. Jennifer Spinks observed in her catalogue essay for The perfume factory and other drawings 1995 that these objects are often displaced, indicating an inner world and a particularly feminine sensibility. Spinks also comments on the enigmatic quality of Wright’s work which seems to allude to a sort of lost consciousness, part classical reason, part uncanny night-time of fearful dreams. The objects stand solitary and mute.
Wright draws our attention in her catalogue essay “A ‘Taxonomy’ of Symbols”  to the surreal elements she employs, such as a navel, a dimple or lips on the side of a vessel. Metaphysical qualities are evident. Her images seem to question what we know of the familiar time and substance seems suspended in abstract space. Titles such as Frankenflower, and references to the politics of genetic modification (in her catalogue essay for Future perfect) suggest a polemical motive.
I believe that while these three elements — the surreal, the metaphysical and the polemical — clearly inform Helen Wright’s imagery, they should not be allowed to overdetermine our interpretations. Her work was, and continues to be, substantially located in the overarching themes of desire, choice and ideals. I will demonstrate how these various themes are underpinned by a quite specific sensibility which involves playful observations on the conundrums posed by options, rather than a particular political stance.
There is much in Helen Wright’s earlier work which anticipates her current image-making. Her work is motivated not so much by what choices ought to be made but rather on the delights and terrors presented by choice itself. In the lithograph Sense and sensibility 1990 we see that one path may lead to moral rectitude, carefulness and goodness; the other may run not necessarily to immorality, perhaps to the delights of the wildest excesses of imagination. As well as demonstrating Helen’s humorous appreciation of ambivalence in regard to moral questions, this early image also reflects her literary persuasion. Like Jane Austen, her work explores ideals and desire, and she engages with these issues through humour. Helen is a person of acid wit and a wicked coiner of nick names, who applies a relentless and astute political analysis to almost any situation. She is also an idealist with a sharp appreciation of the humorous paradoxes generated by compromise, misreadings or relativism.
Wright’s working processes encompass drawing, lithography and digital technology. She moves between these mediums, continuously revising and reworking her singular body of images and themes. Her ideas and processes are always interlinked by her habit of reworking through drawing and I will focus from here on her drawings and digital images.
Most of Helen Wright’s visual ideas are worked through as drawings, sometimes many times, before they are committed to the lithographic or, now, the digital process. The drawings are built up with very finely applied layers of pastel. Digital technology in many ways mirrors the lithographic process which previously followed on from her drawings, in that it too can entail building up images through the application of thin layers of colour and texture. Like the lithographic process, Photoshop allows her to reconstruct her drawings with a different but equally intense quality. The drawings glow with a soft incandescent light, often almost at the point of vaporising.
The digital prints, on the other hand, have a different sort of luminosity, the product of built-up layers of transparent colour. In the boxed set of digital prints, Impossible flower, Wright has chosen to apply the precious aura of her drawing (which has a rough immediacy) to the digital prints by retaining the paper decal and by naming and signing each digital print. This form of presentation and the small scale of the works themselves (approximately postcard size on A4), accords with her affinity for the literary; the suite has a distinctly bookish feel.
Wright believes that her experience with the layering processes of lithography has led to the evident ease with which she has adapted her images to digital technology. Her sympathy with digital processes has resulted in some of the most intense and evocative images I have seen generated by computer technology. Wright maintains her practice of revisiting and reworking images through scanning. The result is an almost seamless graft of computer technology onto her working method. Her repertoire of textures and surfaces has expanded, they can be readily transposed from fabrics, magazine photographs and found objects such as leaves and flowers, pattern samples and scientific illustrations.
Helen Wright’s work almost always engages through her deft use of the close-up. Her singular images push out of the picture plane, creating an unnerving proximity: sensual, inescapable and ambiguous. This immediacy is heightened by the portentous realms suggested by the backgrounds which are arid, distant wildernesses or mysteriously vaporous. The gorgeous, extravagant objects, which suggest preciousness, rarity and splendour, have drained their surrounds of all life. The tenuous stem which often connects her flowers to their surrounds enhances this impression.
The ironies suggested by the most recent body of work, Future perfect and Impossible flower, encapsulate Wright’s delight in ambivalence and I take this as something of a warning when approaching her work. The titles clearly suggest a polemical bent yet her position in relation to the themes she explores is often extremely finely drawn.
Her active appreciation of the paintings of Balthus should be noted. The room by Balthus (1952–54), which depicts nascent sexuality being exposed or concealed by a tiny child drawing a curtain, is referred to in Wright’s drawing The night, its volume and what endangers it 1998. The drama in this captured moment of tremendous ambiguity by Balthus alludes to desire, perfection and beauty, themes also explored by Wright. In The room, Balthus suggests through multiple objects in complex arrangements with each other a specific moment in a story about an object of desire and her own desire. Wright prefers to approach desire with ambivalence by staging it in the form of the familiar yet singular object poised in “...a place beyond time, somewhere between dreaming and awakening”. In the context of this very suggestive image her objective title — The night, its volume and what endangers it — becomes ironic, carrying an undercurrent of seduction. The undulating curtain suggests both a barrier and a mysterious shroud to meaning. Seen in connection to The room, this drawing provides an example of Helen Wright’s appreciation of the ironies encountered when mediating private desire and social integration.
Wright’s comments that her images often allude to the ineffable, the tacit, and the unsayable. She draws our attention to the surreal corporeal elements she employs. Yet these images don’t seem to tap into the unconscious, scary, unsocialised self in order to terrorise the bourgeoisie. Rather, these images are intended to act as triggers to memories and associations with other things. To quote her catalogue essay for Future perfect: “Beneath the sensual tonalities and engaging surfaces and our instinctive attraction to the beautiful there is a dialogue about the contemporary blurring of the impossible with the possible, the strange and the familiar”.
She goes on to say “...Frankenflower acknowledges the vernacular ‘frankenfood’ which has entered the contemporary lexicon to describe genetically modified foods. As the icon of fecundity it mocks Mon Santo’s non-regenerating plants, sitting poised, the moment before a wind carries its seeds to all parts of the landscape. An innocent image which recalls a pure moment of childhood becomes a welcome caution against science's role as ‘corporate inventor’.” Frankenflower recalls a childhood awe of the magical and fragile beauty of the dandelion seed head. It also explicitly engages the notion that genetic engineering is a direct product of our desires, and that the issues raised ought to be contested in the public domain.
Wright’s explicit engagement with the very topical issue of genetically modified food crops is elegantly articulated through her impossible Hermaphrodite flower, also known as Unpopular flower. The ambivalent relationship of desire per se and desire in situ is cleverly integrated in this digital print. This image embodies the most extravagant ‘must have’ features of the ultimate commodity of the twenty-first century: perfect appearance, perfect flavour, perfect resistance to spoiling by insect, fungus or frost.
And how delightful to be able to enjoy the specific pleasures of both sexes simultaneously. Yet the spent penis shapes of the petals droop around a black hole normally occupied by the stigma and ovule (the sex organs of a flower), suggesting dread and oblivion.
For Helen Wright, a very literate artist, the act of using a computer to create a visual image is especially apt in the sense that she is able to write images while imaging writing.
© Penny Mason, 2001.
Paper presented at The Fourth Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2001.
 Helen Wright, Impossible flower, preface to the boxed set, published by Helen Wright, Hobart, 2000.
 Jennifer Spinks, The perfume factory and other drawings, catalogue essay, published by Helen Wright, Hobart, 1995, p. 9.
 Helen Wright, "A 'Taxonomy' of Symbols", interview with Helen Wright, published by the Helen Wright, Hobart, 1997.
 Helen Wright, Future perfect, catalogue essay, published by Helen Wright, Hobart, 2000.
 Helen Wright "A 'Taxonomy' of Symbols", interview with Helen Wright, published by Helen Wright, Hobart, 1997, p. 3.
 Helen Wright Future perfect, catalogue essay, published by Helen Wright, Hobart, 2000.