Inside the View, Helen Sear

See this review in context on Photomonitor

(2012) Cardiff: Ffotogallery
ISBN-13: 978 1 872771 88 5


Helen Sear’s art isn’t easy to define. Certainly themes of nature, feminism and the landscape are prominent within her practice, but defining her oeuvre within these territories alone is highly inadequate. Her work is unpredictable yet exhibits unwavering intellectual engagement with diverse subjects, ranging from contemporary developments in the field of neuroscience, to obscure corners of art history.

The dozen lens-based projects that comprise Inside the View have been made over the past decade or so, most of which were conceived as prints for exhibitions, and some that document video screen and projection installations. The book title refers to two major bodies of work included here: Inside- (2004-8) and Beyond the View (2009-10). These are arguably two of Sear’s most visually luxurious works, and are an excellent example of her level of engagement with advanced technical processes. In these works, Sear layers different perspectives of views, and with a time-consuming digital (manual) process, picks out holes to form an intricate, lace-like patina across the ‘surface’ of the image. The female figure that emerges, with her back to the viewer, facing out and contemplating the landscape, makes an immediate reference to Casper David Friedrich’s ubiquitous romantic Wanderer…, although the obfuscation in Sear’s images, which demands the eye to render some visual order from this beautiful chaos, sets up for the viewer a challenging inquiry into the sublime.

Beyond The View, 2009-10 © Helen Sear
Courtesy of Ffotogallery

Vision, and particularly the eye, is a recurring motif in Sear’s practice. In Spot (2003), the obliteration of the stuffed animals’ eyes is explicit, but with her suite of photographs that investigate a pond near her home in South Wales she draws a parallel to the eye and the camera obscura from the frozen surface of the muddy pond. In the valuable accompanying essay, David Chandler notes the significance of Sear working with photography from a fine art background; intensely curious about the mechanics, processes and paradox of the two-dimensional surface of the photographic image, yet not as anxious as perhaps some of her ‘photographer’-contemporaries have been. Elaborating the photographic process, often with decorative results despite a very ‘straight’ climate, remains, for Sear, a necessity.

Chandler also establishes a vivid image of Sear’s childhood home and formative influences: a large Victorian house; stuffed animals; collections of unsettling medical photographs… dust and intrigue: “Looking up we see that the room is partly lined with shelves and on those shelves are arranged a collection of glass cabinets from which the lights glint too, casting mosaic patterns back into the room to confound our sense of space and the room’s velvet density.” To someone already familiar with Sear’s practice, reading these descriptions helped things click into place.

Design elements of the book reflect and package Sear’s work elegantly; the “mosaic patterns” overlaid in Display (2007) are echoed on the book’s cover, and are used discretely to separate paragraphs in the essay. Also, the distinctive lace patina – a more literal motif of the feminine – present in Inside– and Beyond the View handsomely decorates the book’s endpapers. In some respects, the book functions as a cabinet of curiosities that would not be out-of-place in Sear’s family home: tactile, eclectic, intriguing, and dark in places.