Artists in Quarantine No.7
Painting and drawing make Julie Held feel alive and with the world. An intensely social person, she belongs to several artists’ organisations including the London Group.
So now she is aching.
“I so, so miss private views, friends, colleagues, teaching in person. I’m unable to meet with enough people. No more actual interaction with the physical places where you show your work. I miss having people in my home. I need the brainstorming through conversations…. And group exhibitions can take you to new places.”
So, what is the point of producing artworks that can only be viewed on a digital device or a desk top, when much of the real joy is their physical materiality? The roughness of the canvas, the texture of the paper, the way the paint sinks in or floats on top?
At first, Julie was thrown off course by the pandemic: “Each and everyone of us was thrust into an existential crisis,” she believes. “We are in a chaotic, bewildering place and I’m hoping that some coherence will come out of it. All that I could do is make it biographical and hope that it turns into something that others could relate to it.”
Her routine of leaving her home in north London and travelling into the city each day, wandering as a flâneur as she sought fresh subjects, came to an abrupt end. But lockdown then became a chance to do something new.
She allowed herself to become more experimental, allowing the formality of the work dictate its qualities and where it was going. It became a more abstract exercise as she made large paintings of flowers.
Heat, made at the beginning of lockdown, was inspired by the blooms in her garden. Deep purples, oxbloods, light and dark flicks of green and a strange perspective make it feel nervy. A garden path (or could it be a slatted fence?) runs diagonally, leading nowhere. The flowers and leaves flutter and dance, liberated from any descriptive function. There is something unsettling and ominous, even claustrophobic in the darkness and lack of distance.
Julie is well versed in art theory and has taught for many years. Referencing the original champion of painterly abstraction, Clement Greenberg, she says: “The way I think about painting is very much framed in a Greenbergian way: the formal working of the picture frame – which goes back to the Renaissance idea of the Golden Section. I left all that behind on one level and also incorporated it, paradoxically.”
In Isolation – self-portrait the artist’s face is half-hidden by her cat’s head. The viewer comes under the scrutiny of two pairs of eyes. It’s disturbing, as they emerge from black depths with penetrating looks. The artist clutching an unwieldy cat becomes emblematic of our need to hug a warm and furry live thing, as we peer out into the world.
Her lockdown paintings and drawings were made possible by self-discipline and an abiding horror of becoming “one of those artists who cliché their own work”.
“In the moment when you are contemplating your work, it’s so easy to fall into that tradition of wielding the paintbrush – just for the sake of satisfying that sense that ‘oh I’m working!’
“But it’s an intellectual process, as much as making a mark. I can walk for days holding something in my head and spend hours processing something. Then I can be very economical and disciplined with what I put on the canvas.
“You can be so depressed that you have destroyed something. You can be left with a short-term sense of annihilation. It’s very wretched. But you can go back again and realise, hey! that all that discipline in the lead up to those changes can be worthwhile.
“Many people can go through that process as they bring something to life. My brother David, a political scientist and a writer, also felt that way.”
“I’ve been concerned with politics since I was aged 11. My parents were refugees from Nazi Germany who influenced me by saying you must be aware of what’s going on in the world, be engaged with it. It’s part of my DNA which seeped in like a fog!”
She hopes that there is a political content in all her work on a metaphorical and symbolic level: “Political art,” she says, quoting Picasso and Trotsky, “need not be overt agit-prop.”
Julie has a dream: “I’d like to have a huge exhibition with all my works which is very diverse: with all my charcoal drawings, tiny working drawings and big paintings. I’m hoping that they would cohere into a huge tapestry of many-coloured strands woven horizontally and vertically until they make a whole.”
Her dream could be a metaphor for humanity coming together in a different way out of the pandemic.
So what is her vision for the future? “I’d like to see a less atomised world, a society with investment in more citizen forums. A commitment to the environment that is put into action, respecting the ecological world, which would save us from destruction and prevent future zoonotic diseases.”
For art and life, these are Utopian aspirations in the time of coronavirus. Where are we without such dreams?
Julie Held’s website, including a short film (2019 by Oli Clark)
Artists in Quarantine series
- Michele del Campo: A silver lining for a scary time
- Frances Aviva Blane: Virus – dimensions unknown
- Peter Clossick: Mind games under lockdown
- David Downes: The Covids are coming
- Richard Walker: The chess piece logic of Cuckooland
- Caroline Pick: A sense of liberation
- Julie Held: Aching
- Joe McPhee: Exciting times. Dangerous times.