In 2015 the young artist Gabriella Boyd was commissioned by the Folio Society to illustrate a new edition of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. It’s not hard to see why. Boyd’s paintings depict the kind of logic only dreams can follow – jumbled up scraps of memory, distortions, misunderstandings, miscommunications, loves, fears, all woven together in a dreamlike narrative.
The title of her new exhibition at Blain/Southern, Help Yourself, is typically ambiguous, for Boyd playfully constructs domestic scenes with warm, positive colours but adds something rather discomforting to them.
Take Tomorrow Started, for example. A woman appears to be blow-drying the hair of someone, a daughter perhaps or a customer maybe, but one seemingly as lifeless as a mannequin. They are in proximity but in this fleeting moment don’t seem close. The figures have been enveloped by and melded with tentacle-like sun rays appearing from a porthole (or maybe a portal) in which there appears to be a grubby grate in the road. It becomes a thought bubble taking her and the viewer away from the interior. In the meantime, she appears to be strapped into her chair in a seemingly futile act of self-protection.
“I’m trying to translate a mental state, a relationship even that’s in your head, that’s constantly changing”, she explains. “And I relate that to the way I make a picture – lots of layers that eventually become one image on one plane but there still exists a multi-faceted complexity that is very similar to familial relationships where there is this clarity to it in some senses but there is a depth of tangle that is not cynical or necessarily a negative thing but is my way of trying to deal with as a subject matter.”
Boyd’s figures rarely have faces – making their subjects not only universal but also emphasising the perception that relationships – familial or otherwise – are often intangible and difficult to pin down. In Assisted Reading, the meat of the picture is not at the centre. A woman in green is sitting at a desk while an arm hurtles across and pokes her in the eye with a plant it’s holding and setting off a kind of scarlet explosion. It’s classic Boyd in that she has melded the abstract and the figurative together to keep you guessing as to what’s going on. There are symbols present too. The arm in the red miasma is wearing a chain bracelet. Boyd refers to the old tradition of handing down jewellery down the generations. The practice may mean little, just as attempts at affection can often be misconstrued. This kind of grey area is fertile ground for her active and thoughtful mind.
Draft is on the surface an abstract work yet a rare excursion into the exterior in that one could see it too in figurative terms as a plume of blue smoke in front of a terracotta background. This is reinforced by a red line near the bottom of the picture that grounds it and forces a flatness in the space. The brittle, brushed pigment gives form to what would otherwise be nothing. “It’s about things that are unsaid – more to do with body awareness that’s positively understood. It’s about the space in between things,” she says.
The Optimist is perhaps the most disconcerting of this nine picture exhibition. The couple featured appear to be a doctor and patient in a surgery. They are both transparent, literally, their lungs visible like ripe plums. The doctor appears to be forcing something into his patient’s mouth. Again, there is the ambiguity of not knowing if this is a violent act or one of kindness. He’s taking her pulse or could it be a romantic gesture? The impulsiveness appears at odds with the sterile interior represented by the curtain and the static, rather ominous black window with the solid-looking smoke taking a right-angled bend.
My constant use of adjectives like “seemingly” and “apparent” is a clue to the ambiguity surrounding Gabriella Boyd’s works. She offers many puzzles that may be impossible to solve but are enough to keep you interested.
Help Yourself is showing at Blain/Southern, 4 Hanover Square, London W1S 1BP until 5 May 2018.