Defining her artistic style, London-based painter Aly Helyer says: “In my dreams, I would like to be described as a Romantic Expressive, who tries to make paintings which have the stillness and control of early Renaissance, with overtones of Pontormo.” Aly’s recent series of 48 portraits on paper for Draw Art Fair, entitled The Forerunners, simultaneously engages with and departs from conventional portraiture in her merging of traditional compositional techniques with warped, exaggerated proportions, bold strokes and an expressive colour palette.
Aly’s artistic education was a largely traditional one; her studies in painting at Chelsea School of Art in the 90s paid great attention to the techniques and skills favoured by art history, and she spent much of her time observing and drawing from life. It is perhaps for this reason that Aly is compelled by historical masters of painting such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, Pontormo, Bronzino, Rembrandt, Guston, Eisenman and Sillman, whom she lists as influences on her work. She tells us: “I spend a lot of time in the National Gallery, and I find myself looking further back as I get older.”
The Forerunners encapsulates the way in which Aly uses her work to explore and interpret traditional painting on her own artistic terms, and in her own unique style. She says of the series: “I’ve always been drawn to the Predella of the San Domenico Altarpiece Fiesole by Fra Angelico, which is in The National Gallery – and in particular to the panel depicting The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs. Although this painting is of a group of individuals, I have always been struck by how isolated, trapped and disconnected each figure seems, completely lost in their own thoughts.”
Aly’s interpretation of The Forerunners highlights the disconnect that she perceives between the individuals in the original painted panel by isolating each of the 48 figures to a separate, single portrait, closely cropped around the head and shoulders. The portraits collectively form a cohesive group by virtue of the consistent style in which they are rendered, and yet they are set apart by their physical confinement within their own frames, as well as the stark chromatic variations between them which mark the painted subjects as separate – at once stylistically interconnected and compositionally solitary. As Aly tells it: “When I was asked to produce work for Draw Art Fair, I’d already started a few portraits and it just seemed like a natural progression to develop them into a large body of work; it acted as a single piece, but also contained these individuals.”
In her work, Aly tends towards traditional mediums like oil paint and gouache. She says: “I only really feel that I’m just starting to understand oil paint – it’s such a complex medium with seemingly endless possibilities. Gouache is such a beautiful medium; it doesn’t harden for months, so you can keep reactivating it. I can’t use acrylic – it feels as if I’m painting with heavy-duty rubber gloves on.” The 48 works that comprise The Forerunners are rendered using gouache and tempera on paper.
Speaking of where her paintings sit within art history and portraiture, Aly states: “I still struggle with context: where the hell these figures are situated is always a battle, dealing with the idea of the illusionistic Renaissance box or breaking free and trying to situate them in a more energetic Byzantine space. Older artists didn’t seem to have this problem, so I’m trying to learn from them. I also feel that artists who are significantly younger than me are much more liberated by art history than my generation, so I guess I’m trying to understand how they do this, too.”