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Exhibitions

Three exhibitions to see in London this weekend

From Helen Beard's sexually fluid paintings to Helene Schjerfbeck's unique Nordic Modernism

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Helen Beard's A Position of Trust (2019) © Helen Beard / Unit London

One of Finland’s most admired paintings The Convalescent (1888) is currently on loan from Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum for the first UK show of the painter Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts (until 27 October; tickets £14, concessions available). The work's French-inspired Realist style is one that Schjerfbeck would eventually abandon for a heavily stylised Nordic Modernism, but its subject matter of a sickly child touches upon the same themes of decay and mortality that occupied the painter throughout her life. This is no clearer than in the show's middle section, a room devoted to a series of self-portraits that trace Schjerfbeck’s face chronologically over the space of around 50 years. Steadily progressing from girlish gazes in traditional palettes to angular skull-like visages where paint is harshly scraped, they reflect a deeply human anxiety over ageing. Made up of nearly 70 carefully chosen paintings, this show presents Schjerfbeck's style as highly unique and therefore difficult to categorise, which may provide an explanation for why it has taken so long for her painter to receive her dues outside her home country. See this show before Schjerfbeck's work heads back to Finland next month.

Helen Beard, who some may remember from Damien Hirst’s group show True Colours at his Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall last year, is having her largest ever solo-exhibition It’s Her Factory at Unit London (until 6 October; free). This sexually explicit new body of work (no pun intended) includes mostly large-scale paintings in kaleidoscopic colours filled with textural swirling strokes of oil and acrylic. Her best works are actually the smaller, more abstract pieces that are less intentionally shocking and require a deeper look, with her nine-panel Matisse-like painting that gives the show its title being the standout piece. The exhibition also includes her first sculpture: I Have Made My Bed, and I Will Lie in it (2019)—a plywood sheet with vibrators uniformly stuck to it. The work sold for £26,000, though the gallery declined to say if it was a male or female buyer. Not that it should matter: "I am diversifying and showing more gay and lesbian sex. Love is love and anything goes", says Beard, who adds that this new stance is inspired by the sexual fluidity of her 18-year-old son and his friends. Saying that, unless your parents are as liberal as Helen Beard, we'd advise checking out this show sans mum and dad.

The world of Esther Pearl Watson's paintings is a strange sci-fi depiction of middle America: cornfields, drive-throughs, and flying saucers, with her family shown as one-eyed cyclopes. In Mothership at Maureen Paley (until 22 September; free), the Texas-born artist remembers her wayward childhood with quotes from her teenage diary affixed in the paintings' corners, unifying the series through a familiar, lived history. The figure of Watson's father (often depicted as a cowboy) looms large. Having spent much of his life unsuccessfully building UFOs to sell to Nasa, his madcap pursuit of the American dream is a compelling enough narrative in and of itself. However, it is the female relationships that inspire the show's name and cement the viewer's attention. Pearls of grandmotherly wisdom, a mother who worked round the clock and Watson's own relationship to her children are all felt amid the space-age fantasy. Here the eternal themes of matriarchal sacrifice and struggle makes these strange, Outsider art-inspired works feel grounded in reality.