Sex doesn’t just have to be talked about through the lens of pornography.The British artist, whose prolific work was discovered by chance by Damien Hirst, speaks to Holly Black about depicting intimacy and pleasure.

Helen Beard, Heart Shaped Box

Helen Beard depicts explicit, sexual scenes in a riot of celebratory colour. The Brighton-based, Birmingham-born artist has long been fascinated with sex, turning to old-school pornography in the pre-internet age and scouring pages for carnal images that spoke of female pleasure and mutual empowerment, as opposed to subjugation.

For years Beard painted practically in secret, and it wasn’t until Damien Hirst chanced upon her pieces (thanks to a mutual connection through her husband) that she finally gained the exposure and recognition she deserved. Following the True Colours exhibition at Newport Street Gallery last year, Beard has been in high demand, and she’s been working prolifically in preparation for various exhibitions. I met the artist ahead of her latest exhibition, at Unit London.

Helen Beard, It’s Her Factory

Can you tell me about the title of your new show at Unit Gallery, “It’s Her Factory”? You’ve produced so much work that the allusion to a production line seems apt.

It has felt a bit like a factory! I’ve made about forty works this year and there are around thirty in this show. I’ve always loved the Gang of Four song of the same name, and it’s something I listen to in the studio a lot. It’s relevant because it references the women’s issues I’m trying to cover. One of the lines is “Housewife/ heroines/ addicts to their homes”. Women are the unsung heroes, taking on domestic labour often as well as holding down a job. It also relates to the needlepoints I’m showing; it’s a form that is often considered a “homey” thing to do—taking in mending and fixing things. Of course, I love the contrast of in-your-face sexual images presented in this medium too.

Helen Beard, Lazy Susan

“Women are the unsung heroes, taking on domestic labour as well as holding down a job”

It’s great to see the piece I Have My Bed and I Will Lie in It, which is effectively a “bed of nails” made from imported vibrators. How does it feel to realize a work that has been so long in the making? I know you bought the sex toys pre-internet from China, and they look very utilitarian!

I’m so pleased with how it turned out; the sculpture has a censor, and all the vibrators turn on in unison. It’s a gentle hum like a washing machine, but I was worried that the whole thing might be jumping across the floor! The vibrators have a very old-fashioned feel to them—they really are nail-like. I like the contrast between the minimalism of this sculpture and all of the colour that surrounds them.

Helen Beard, I Have Made My Bed, and I Will Lie in it

How are you expanding your source material to depict different types of intimacy?

This show features a lot of female pleasure, and I feel that there are a lot of interesting avenues to follow. I want to pursue some post-coital works, and intimate caresses. I want to paint some pregnant women too, because you don’t stop having sex just because you’re having a baby! People treat the pregnant [and post-partum] body in such strange ways, not to mention breastfeeding. There’s still this idea that you’re a sexual object even though your body is being used in this functional way. Of course, bodies also physically change a lot during this period, which I’m very interested in. I’ll probably hire models for this kind of work, because these are forms of imagery that aren’t easy to get hold of.

Does this mark a departure in the way you approach your work, as you’ve previously used pornographic source material?

Sex doesn’t just have to be talked about through the lens of pornography, and that’s why I’m trying to do what I do, it’s a completely different stance. I still use porn and Google images, but because I’m not finding exactly what I want I’ll have to start staging my own shoots. If I photograph things myself it will give me more range, more body shapes…

“I want to paint some pregnant women too, because you don’t stop having sex just because you’re having a baby!”

Helen Beard, Take Good Care of Yourself

One of your newest works, Systemic Totem, is singularly phallic. What inspired the piece?

It was one of the last works I made, and with politics being so crazy at the moment I was thinking about “The Male System”, as it were. I needed a massive totem to represent this hideous time. It’s crazy that we are still struggling to be seen as equals all these centuries later.


Helen Beard, It’s Her Factory

At Unit London until 6 October

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