Interview made in Madrid, October 2018

“I paint people because we are full of problems and possibilities.

I paint people in an attempt to understand them better”

Interview with Helen Bur


What does your art talk about?


The work embraces paintings ability to provide a contemporary social narrative, holding a mirror to what is happening is the world around us and the phenomena of how it is presented (i.e -digital + social media) looking at how this bombardment of  imagery and information leaves us in a state of confusion or disconnection where our own narratives about our reality are subconsciously formed, creating a position of daily surreality as the norm.

The play between information and absurdity, commentary and narration, figuration and abstraction provide a delicate ground for the work, allowing paintings capacity to slow down the way in which we process imagery to provide a moment of quiet and stillness, inviting the eye to linger.

Ultimately, the work imitates the wide spread mood of absurdity in our age by not projecting a singular opinion but rather presenting a decontextualised, cropped or fabricated scenario where the viewer is often forced to weave their own narrative into the sub-context.



We have some questions about your next exhibition: ‘Laugh at the odds’...

It’s all about circles… what does they symbolize to you? Why you have been painting them?


The theme sort of arrived by accident (!) They have always had a presence in my previous works but a lot more subtle, so now i’ve just pushed it out which is basically me going ‘what’s this about then?’ !


The circle is a universal symbol with extensive meaning; it represents the notions of unity, totality, wholeness, perfection, the infinite, eternity , the cycles of time and yet also ‘zero’, nothingness, constraint, futility, no beginning, no end, no progress.

So it holds these two opposing symbols which formed a parallel with the research I was undertaking on ‘Absurdism’ - this idea that we have a nostalgia for unity, a fundamental human need to find a coherent meaning in the life we lead and the cold meaningless, irrational nature of the universe in which we live or are confronted with.


So the paintings become about this search for meaning; there’s always a certain lack of information or clarity, not all the viewers questions can be answered, but in this way I  hope the images then hold a universal quality where they become open to interpretation - the viewer is invited / challenged to find and apply their own meaning.


Laugh at the odds… Tell me about it.


We embrace the absurd condition of human existence. In a world devoid of meaning; silent, cold, godless, we preserver to find our own meaning and we do it laughing ;) It’s actually from a quote by the lovable asshole Charles Bukowski.



You usually paint people doing things, do you find them more interesting than nature, objects, surroundings?


I fucking love nature, who doesn’t? because it’s perfect and powerful and seemingly always in balance at least to the extent that it doesn’t make me question everything about it in the same way humans do. I paint people because we are full of problems and possibilities, I paint people in an attempt to understand them better I suppose.


I wonder if you were a serious student in university…  


I think so! I waited a few years after leaving school because I wasn’t really sure ‘studying’ art was a good idea - but it was the last year I could go in England before the fees tripled - so I did it and it was great. There was a lot of freedom, self-guidance, challenges, an amazing library and the studios were big and open 24 hours so you would always find me there late at night when most people had left; working hours i’ve annoyingly not shaken! There was also this brilliant dive bar / music venue on site called Tommy’s Bar which offset any seriousness.


Who were, at that time, and who are today, your references in the art world? Who inspires you to create?


Gerhard Richter’s ‘The Daily Practice of Painting’ was my art-school bible.

Photographer Nan Goldin was a big influence - she inspired me to create photo diaries really extending how I saw the creative possibility and ‘beauty’ in everything and everyone that surrounded me.

Of course I never forget the masters, Valazquez, Goya, + more contemporary artists - Michael Borremans, Lars Eling, Justin Mortimer to name a few.

Musicians are also big inspirations for me - John Dwyer, PJ Harvey and Tom Waits come to mind - people who have these incredible prolific outputs, that energy is contagious.     

But on a daily basis it is my contemporaries that inspire me to create most, especially when working on the streets, the camaraderie and social elements become very important.


Tell us about The Abacus adventure… What was it, what did you learn, why did you stop it.


The Abacus was a DIY gallery and arts space; fresh out of art-school we realised there were no platforms for young artists to share their work with the community, so we had the punk ethos of ‘if you’re not invited to the party, start your own’, we also did this with Empty Walls festival. It was a great way to learn quickly the basics of how galleries and festivals work which gives you a more balanced understanding of the world you’re entering as an artist. I stopped because although I loved it, I realised I was not a ‘manager’ and I had almost stopped creating any art, or sleeping so my head was suffering in big way!  


When did you make your first public intervention?


There was this abandoned barn a small walk from my ma’s house, this is where I started to experiment.


Why did you decide to work mainly on the public area?


Throughout and after art school I was disillusioned by the ‘art world’; it felt like the furthest place away from being an artist and making art. The Abacus made me realise the importance of art on a community level and painting on the streets is the most direct way you can have a dialogue with a broad audience, share your work for ‘free’, there are no privileges or elitist mentalities involved. It also provides some alternative and combats the visual pollution that is advertising.



Let’s talk about your residence in Madrid...

How different is to paint at yours or to paint in a new place? How does it feel?


Of course the comforts of your own studio - surrounded with all your favourite art books, old sketchbooks, photo albums, slippers, a cat and an endless supply of Yorkshire tea-bags are very appealing and nice but after being on the road painting walls you get very used to working resourcefully and with pressure so this feels quite normal to me now. I actually haven’t had a studio for more than 3 months at a time since art school, I like to be on the move. There are less distractions when you are outside your home country - which can give you the ability to be very focused.   


Do you think your painting gets influenced by the fact of creating it in an ‘unknown’ different place?


Of course, whether intentionally or not. That’s what so lovely about residencies, you have the privilege to be immersed in all these new sights, sounds, smells, cultures and people. Perhaps it’s more directly an influence on walls when you’re painting within the community space, perhaps more subtly once you’re within the studio space and everything becomes quietly internalised. Both are important.



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