Half Life: Helen Shelley

Helen Shelley leaves other figurative painters for dead. In her latest exhibition Immortality Without the Assistance of God Shelley presents us with a brooding suite of half-portraits. I say half-portraits because in each of these the subject is presented eyes closed, presumably mimicking death, perhaps sleep, pain or pleasure, or an unspecified combination of all. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then it is hidden from us here, but its absence does little to change the fact that these works pack a walloping emotional punch.

Shelley works directly onto perspex sheeting, cut into shapes that represent slices of a skull. This clear ground allows her to paint onto both the back and front of the surface, creating a dreamy, multilayered surface in which the images appear trapped and sealed.

These works are powerfully magnetic and disconcertingly intimate, the closed eyes seeming to represent a deeply vulnerable state. Elsewhere in the picture plane strange things are happening – odd scattered shapes, pseudo-psychedelic patterns and colourful yet disturbing oozings all populate the area surrounding the subjects’ upturned faces. The hallucinogenic quality of such detail emphasises the bizarreness of these ‘in between’ states. Not quite asleep, not quite awake, not dead but not alive, Shelley’s paintings explore the unknown in the realms that science and logic have failed.

The exhibition is stunning, and for the lucky ones can be caught at CCAS Manuka until September 20.

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