“There are always flowers for those that want to see them” Henri Matisse
Down a dirt road, one and a half hours southwest of Coffs Harbour, is the home and studio of painter Helen McCullagh. Isolated and without mobile reception, it is a spot that sounds equal parts idyllic and terrifyingly cut off for an extroverted introvert like myself.
Immersed in the imagery and echoes of the bush, McCullagh finds herself drawn daily to the converted barn that is her workspace. Joyous and passionate about her art practice, she creates vivid still lifes that vibrate with an energy she too possesses. Working in oil paint, a medium she loves for the silky quality she can achieve, McCullagh selects everyday scenes and elevates them to moments of blissful reflection. On canvas, she captures those split second instants where you find yourself wholly present in your surroundings, delighting in the simple things – sunlight streaming through a window, a curtain blowing in the breeze, the simple beauty of a vase of cut flowers.
Expressive and colourful, her work pays homage to Modernist painters by simplifying tone, form and depth in order to convey emotion and a sense of place over technical precision. It is a method that belies the work required to create it, seemingly made with the same simplicity with which it can be viewed. Each brushstroke is a considered form of organized chaos, balanced in composition and tone, that reveals the extent of both her training and her innate ability.
But each brushstroke, too, is a chance to sweep away peripheral noise in her life; an opportunity to paint colour and calmness when the isolation of the bush gets too much. Whatever stresses exist behind the scenes, there is always levity in McCullagh’s compositions. Which isn’t to say there aren’t clues to her motivations captured on canvas – the slowly wilting flowers, the aging fruit, the palpable sense of longing in a vacant easy chair…
This coping mechanism is not unique to McCullagh. Joyousness in the face of despondency has been the fuel for many creatives, including Henri Matisse, whose work perhaps inspires McCullagh’s aesthetic most strongly. Painting during the Second World War, Matisse sought to escape the horrors via his painting, saying
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.
With that quote in mind, and viewed in the context of current trends in contemporary Australian art, Helen McCullagh’s work is, for me, a little like spotting a rainbow on a grey day, a reminder that simple pleasures always exist somewhere in the gloom. Amongst all the angst and didactic commentary within the gallery spaces I visit, there remains an artist creating art for art’s sake. It is a welcome reprieve from the multitude of earnest messages that barrel toward me in a day.
Helen McCullagh’s latest work is on view as part of The Ambience Store Project until 4 April 2016.
52 Doggett Street
Newstead Q 4006