(NSFW – Artistic Nudity Ahead)
San Francisco based artist Helen Bayly‘s work exists as a challenge. Bayly’s series ‘Making Friends With The Devil‘ is an exploration of power, control. Of sexuality and that imaginary line that is drawn and we tell ourselves we cannot cross. That line, we’ve each drawn our own. Bayly crossed hers and invites the viewer to take that same leap. Approach your discomfort and issues from a new angle.
Bayly has a delicate handle on her technique. Her large scale pencil drawings are jaw dropping in scope. Precise and grandiose. They’re alive. She plays in themes of science and religion — of the internal discourse we all have about sex, God, and the purpose of life.
When you see her series ‘Lust for Life‘ you see the artist placing modern rituals like drunken parties and hook ups against the monuments of the Bible and mythology. It’s both brilliant and frightening.
Her art needs to exist. The world is better for it. It’s challenging and exploratory. It’s raw and full of humor and fragility. It’s real. It’s human.
ETDC: I first saw your work in person at Gauntlet Gallery in San Francisco. The gallery was packed with great work, but yours stood out to me. ‘MFIC’ is an incredible work – in technique and scope. The piece is giant for a pencil drawing.
Your works shifts mediums. Pencil. Pen. Paint. ‘MFIC’ and your other large scale pencil works could have been painted. Why did you choose to go the more time consuming route of pencil? What leads you to adopt a specific medium?
HB: I switch mediums based on a number of reasons. I use a new body of work as an opportunity to explore something in depth, an idea, a concept, and essentially and new material approach to getting there.
In the ‘Friends with the Devil‘ series, one of which was the ‘MFIC‘ piece that you saw hanging at Gauntlet Gallery, I wanted to push the line work that I had been doing the year before. I was using ink brushes to make large scale paintings and wanted to make even tighter marks, so I switched to mechanical pencil.
On that series I spent hours rendering body parts and tiny flower fills in the background. It made sense to work with the imagery this way because the content was very heavy on sex and raw meat, and I wanted it to stay approachable and delicate, to make the rawness of human behavior more approachable and delicate.
‘CFM’, ‘MFIC’, and ‘Get It’ have the common element of mirrored figures. Twins. The mirrored effect gives the pieces a narcissistic feel – a man strokes himself at his own reflection. A woman approaches herself on all fours. Blindly kisses her own face. Come Fuck Me. Mother Fucker In Charge. They’re oddly hilarious. Disturbing. Magical.
Your characters seem to play a lyrical part in your narratives – the theme, or ‘point,’ of your works are engrained into the overall piece meaning the colors, text, medium, and composition all play as much of a part in your pieces as the figures do. What inspired the mirrored twinisms of ‘CFM’ and ‘MFIC’? Was is purely a situation of, ‘that looks cool‘ or is there a root that the concept came from?
Yes, there was very intentional thoughts behind the mirrored figures. I wanted to talk about human behavior in those pieces, specifically sexual charge.
I had considered a number of options, and decided that the interaction between two figures was more interesting than a single figure. With two figures there is a relationship between them we naturally build a narrative for, where as a singular figure we pay more attention to what they might represent, like a symbol for something.
Upon deciding this I also considered a number of options, eventually coming to the conclusion that a typical male/female tension was a bit too common and just wasn’t necessary for the content of the characters. In using two of the same characters I felt it would bring the sexual charge I was looking for, and bring it exponentially because it was exaggerating the experience.
The dominate men in stance facing one another bring two times the power, and conversely the two women on their knees bring even more submission. And yeah, I thought it looked cool too.
Each of your series’ have a specific aesthetic – ‘Making Friends With The Devil’ uses a lot of negative space and pale colors – the drawing style is an interesting mash of surrealist photorealism and blunt mark making as something like ‘Lust for Life’ takes a more painterly approach – distinct lines, bright and warm colors.
Where do you start with a series? A visual idea? A theme? When do you know you have something you can expand on over a series of works? Something worth the time it takes you to see it to the end?
I start with a concept or a question, then the visual aspects unfold from there. I enjoy making art, the tough part is what to paint, it’s the concept that takes more effort. It’s like Carl Sagan so eloquently said, ‘If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe.’
I add that not to be cryptic but to explain how much of my conceptual discovery has to do with an accumulation of thoughts and ideas. It comes from my environment, the people around me and the conversations I’m having. It’s the stage of life I’m entering or leaving, it’s how much sex I’m having or how much sleep I’m getting or how in love I am. And most times I choose concepts that I don’t fully understand so that by the end of the series I’ve had a chance to uncover some new material.
It’s about finding ideas that really hold merit for me and what will hold merit for my viewers. In this regard I believe in generosity, I work very hard on making something that is worth viewing.
Each of your series’ has a distinct visual connectivity between its pieces – each work in ‘Lust for Life’ fits inside of that world, as does those in ‘Making Friends With The Devil.’
Once a series is done are you open to re-visiting its style? Can you return to the style of ‘Origins’ or ‘Lust for Life’? Is there a sense of closure on a theme and style once a series has been finished and exhibited?
There is only a sense of closure for me thematically or stylistically because I’m always trying new things. Currently I have dropped graphite all together and am painting figurative acrylic on canvas, which is new territory for me.
Drawing got comfortable and I wanted to leave that comfort zone. And it worked because I’m way out of my comfort zone right now. I’ve had more unfinished, scrapped paintings in the last six months than ever before.
Art’s kicking my ass but I’m excited about this next body of work because the results are really strong and they reflect the amount of effort going into them. Growth is good. Stagnation is not.
Your piece ‘Fountain of Decay’ hits incredibly hard – the narrative is so sharp and biting, but there are so many minor elements that give the painting wonderful depth, visually and emotionally. The skeletal ghosts. The sliver of blood is beautiful. Attractive.
What struck me the most are the two figures in the foreground. They’re drawn in a classic style, young royalty of some lost age. But here they aren’t the golden beings we’re used to seeing, all bronzed and marbled. These are fragile. They’re human. You see what keeps them alive – the veins, hearts. Guts. When you started working on this piece, how clear was your intent? Do you sketch and map out the composition to prepare a drawing of this size and narrative weight?
There was a ton of planning that took place to make that piece. The whole ‘Lust for Life‘ body of work was half preparation and half execution.
My goal was to make classical, monochromatic, ink brush rendered pieces with modern hedonistic content. Talk about new challenges, working with ink on large scale paper for the first time, it’s a recipe that calls for accuracy. Once that ink hits the paper it’s there. There’s no erasing or hiding any marks.
The largest piece was 12ft x 4ft and took six months to make. I made studies of almost everything before painting them in. It was a very intentional series, inspired by mythology as well which visually tells stories through symbology. The details played a very important role.
Your work plays in sexuality – humorous. Serious. Fearful. The men’s faces in ‘MFIC’ are blunt shapes, aggressively colored. Splattered. ‘Masturbation #1’ and ‘Masturbation #2’ remove everything from the world but masturbation. ‘Baby Making Mother Fucker’ puts pregnancy in the same role as sores and lesions. A sort of skin cancer. ‘Lover Boy’, the figure is weighed to the ground by his umbilical cord.
Do you see your work as a way of working through your thoughts and feelings or direct expression of where you are at emotionally at the time?
I don’t notice that the art I make is from a specific emotional state, but I suppose it’s from an emotional place when it comes to topics that hold an emotional charge.
I start with topics that fascinate me, and then uncover new information as I paint or do research for them. I’m not afraid to make art that makes people uncomfortable, or that makes me uncomfortable for that matter. It’s like once you say something scary you realize it’s not that bad. Then you wonder why it was scary to begin with, was it in your head the whole time?
I went through that last year working with a lot of pornographic imagery, I wanted to know where it fit into my sexual framework. I made ‘Baby Machine, Be Fruitful’ starting with a certain amount of discomfort that dissipated by the end of it.
Studying porn I found that a huge amount of the population, myself included, privately sees quite a bit of vagina imagery. It’s called pussy, but we’re all looking at vaginas. I was inclined to use vaginas as a more ‘functional’ than ‘sexual’ object, covering a female torso with crowning births and vaginas as entry points. I admit it ended up looking a bit violent.
It took something that is a normally private spectacle and made it very public, it changed the glossy context and brought the complexity to a both sexual and function body part. It was closer to how I thought nature offered it up to us, less taboo. It was both super sexy, and a way for a baby to leave a body which is pretty bizarre.
Satan appears a few times in your work, and he’s a character that you show having the most fun. He’s the figure enjoying himself the most. He lacks the fragility of the figures in ‘Night Time is the Right Time’ and in ‘Lust for Life’ the superficially holy character is the one fading, dying, withering. There’s a love of the natural sciences in your work but also a well observed knowledge of Christian references.
What’s interesting is that you don’t mock the devil, Satan, or religion specifically. Something like ‘OMG’ or ‘Let’s Go Party Girl’ show humanity, however short it might be. Your work strikes on interesting ground. It’s not mocking of religion, but it also doesn’t support it either. How aware are you of that balance in your work?
I am aware of that balance because it aligns with how I feel about religions role as far as the development of humanity is concerned. I don’t believe in God, I’m not spiritual either. I’ve done acid and been one with the planet, but I don’t mistake that feeling as hard evidence.
I look at religion as an early study of human behavior, as psychology when we didn’t have anything else to go on. I love the idea of an archetype, of one character playing out an exaggerated version of human potential, be it good, bad, whatever. I also appreciate the complex visual language that Western culture is rooted in, which is dominated by religious content.
Satan and Mary, they each hold so much conceptual ‘wow’ with very little else involved. When I borrow religious imagery, I borrow centuries of content along with it.
Plus I have a soft spot for Satan. I like the early Satan, the one that runs around in the woods drunk on wine, dancing and seducing women. I think we would get along just fine.
Your figures are so accurate, you can sense their underlying reality. Are you working with live models or any type of photo reference?
I use a mixture of reference materials for the figures I paint. Sometimes its friends as models, sometimes myself. Both internet porn and classical white marble statues work really well as references because they’re so well documented and come in very high resolution files.
When it comes to wanting something very specific I have to use a collage of imagery to get the details, so basically what ever I can find that will get the information needed to make the art. I will use up to seven different references for one figure.
One of these days I’ll be able to pull it out of memory, in like 30 years from now. Until then it’s Google image and a digital camera.
You went to art school, and as someone that spent time in that world I as wondering if you feel that your education prepared you for the shift from student to working professional. Is that something you can even learn, or be prepared for?
Hahaa fuck no it didn’t prepare me! But it taught me how to think, and for that I’m forever grateful. It taught me how to be responsible for my content. And I was surrounded by a community that really cared about art which allowed me to care.
The funny thing about studying and practicing fine art is that almost no one will actually become a professional, and by that I mean get paid. It’s still very much a luxury profession where if you’re not wealthy then you’ve got to put in massive amounts of time and energy, live simple and hustle.
I don’t think school prepares you for that because it’s more of a lifestyle than a career path. That said, I totally recommend it, because the good days are SO good. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.
You recently quit your day job, and absolute and honest congratulations on that. That moment, that decision, must have been an incredible moment for you. What gave you the confidence to focus on your art as a career 100%?
Thank you for your congratulations! I got to this place by a two part equation. The first is that my experience has built up a level of confidence. I have been making art for more than 10 years now and although it’s still a learning process, I have days where painting or drawing feels so familiar, like eating cereal or brushing my teeth.
I’m at a point in my life where I feel ready and up for the challenge. The second part of the equation is that I have a truly supportive partner that’s confident, ambitious and takes risks. He makes me want to try harder and be better. He’s the challenge that will help kick my ass and give me love at the same time. I’m a lucky lady.
You have a wonderful style and technique, and as someone that follows fine art, comic books, and illustration in general I have to ask this – did you ever toy with the idea of pursuing jobs in illustration or more corporate art / design fields?
I’ve done (and still do) non-‘fine art’ work. Mural commissions, portraits, sign painting, etc. This work was always secondary though because content is so important to me.
I enjoy painting commissions, I like building planter boxes and gardening, I like cooking and baking. Doing work in general where I get to take on a project and have some creative input is what makes me happy, but my artwork has been the only thing that’s really challenged and thusly rewarded me in the same way.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s not a practical career path, but for what it lacks in practicality it makes up for in mental enrichment. Also corporate funding means corporate content, and I’m more of a grit than fluff kinda person.
It’s so amazing to be living where I do and to be able to express the things I do about sex and religion. I don’t take for granted the fact that not everyone can make art like this.
You responded to one of my e-mails at like 7:30AM on a weekday and I was totally surprised. I assumed, obviously wrongly, that a working fine artist would keep random hours and not get up early during the week for anything. What sort of hours do you keep for your work? Do you try and keep a consistent 9AM – 5PM schedule?
That’s funny! I used to fit that artist stereotype. Slept in until noon, painted and drank until 4am. Eventually I figured out that I was more effective treating my practice like a job.
When I wake up at 7am, have coffee, get whatever internet communication and research done, my painting day can be long and productive. Plus I can enjoy dinner and still be social, have drinks, and all this without lingering guilt because I’ve given my studio lots of attention. Discipline is something I always am struggling with though.
It takes a lot of discipline to make real progress on work, especially now that I’m trying to make a life out of my art, I stress more about what I’m not doing than what I am. This transition period has added new layers of pressure and I can’t wait to re-adjust.
You were an invited artist at 111 Minna Gallery’s ‘Sketch Tuesdays’, and as a fan it was awesome to get to meet you in person and buy an original piece for the cash in my wallet.
As a working artist part of your job is attending openings and visiting galleries. How do you separate work from pleasure? Can you enjoy a gallery opening or an event like ‘Sketch Tuesdays’? Is there a feeling, or requirement that you have to be ‘on’?
I don’t feel that pressure at all, it was nice meeting you. Sketch Tuesday is fun for me, it’s making art and drinking beer with friends which is super great stuff.
Art shows too, I love chatting with people. The other night I was trying to explain to an acquaintance, why the isolation and uncertainty of a painting practice is so enjoyable. It feels rewarding that’s why. And often times art receptions are on the other end of a lot of hard work. I take advantage of the party and soak it up before heading back to start all over again.
For more from Helen Bayly follow these handy links —
Helen Bayly interview on Warholian