I thought a lot about Gwen Hardie’s work on a recent trip to northern Spain and southern France. For about two weeks I found myself stumbling daily (hourly, even!) upon beautifully crafted and emotionally stirring images and objects, not to mention the dazzling structures that house them. For someone who’s not particularly spiritual, I found it all to be so beautiful and uplifting. Any barriers I might normally have to being seduced by the trappings of organized religion were also on vacation, and I was left with a feeling of fervor, even if its source couldn't be accurately credited. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for someone who is a true believer: heads and hearts must spill over with joy when pilgrims replace tourists and prodigal children make their way home.
I had a similar feeling in Gwen Hardie's Brooklyn, NY studio when I visited her last March. Not of being an enthusiastic sightseer or an appreciative outsider, but of standing in the presence of work that is both resolutely physical and communing with the unknown. Hardie’s canvases have a glow that transitions subtly like the slow curves in the arches of a Romanesque church. Her canvases are lit from within, reminiscent of an icon or distant piece of stained glass placed lovingly in a window 100 feet above anyone’s ability to make out the subject matter embedded in it - in the end, it’s just light hinting at form. Hers is the work of an artist insisting on a quiet, tender and bewitching moment in a ridiculously loud, cruel and frenetic world. It’s an attempt at making sense of - or perhaps coming to peace with - the unexplainable. In front of it I become a true believer in stillness and beauty.
It’s been months since Hardie welcomed me into her luminous, dazzling studio, and her work is still with me - a persistent glow lingering in my head and in my heart. I’m so happy to be able to share my interview with her here.
Gwen Hardie in her studio
The Semi-Finalist: How did you get started as an artist and what were those formative years like?
Gwen Hardie: My first ‘Artwork” probably happened in my post graduate year at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. I had been studying the live model for 4 years, and then was given a private studio and a model - how generous of the Art College when I think back!
Suddenly, I found a new freedom - I zoomed into the model, expanding scale to much larger than life and experimented with how to apply the paint, seeking a way to use it that evoked atmosphere and body as interchangeable. They were large paintings and the result was like stepping into the field of the face or figure. The practice of sustained looking at the life model felt oddly privileged. Existential questions about self, other - what divides and connects us - arose out of it. At that time, I couldn’t convince myself of anything I painted if it weren’t from direct observation. I also recognized that I didn’t want to become a figurative painter and had no idea how I could bridge the gap to the kinds of work I was attracted to in galleries and museums. (A good example are Rothko’s Seagram paintings at the Tate). Now, I understand that this act of being ‘convinced’ is to do with how color reverberates and creates an illusion of life/living. These paintings at ECA (Edinburgh College of Art) were successful to my surprise - they all sold in London - yet I felt like I was just at the beginning. I wanted to broaden my base of knowledge and understanding in art.
A DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) scholarship enabled me to move to Berlin, 1984-1990, studying briefly with Georg Baselitz and testing new approaches to painting. Influences came and went - I subjected the single figure to expressionist color (decided I wasn’t an expressionist exactly!), split the figure in two, made huge sculptural wall reliefs of abstracted single and multiple figures interwoven. Offers to show my rapidly changing work also came and went - I had to create a kind of distance between my creative journey and the public’s response to it. I was lucky to gain the attention of Keith Hartley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who gave me a solo show there of this work. These are some of the most formative experiences in my beginnings as an artist.
Gwen Hardie | 04.13.23, Venetian Red on Indian Red, 2023 | Oil on canvas | 30 x 30 inches
SF: Your abstract paintings from 2018 on are so rooted in a tradition of visual experience that is consistently non-narrative. Does language trip you up when you try to describe your work? And how do you describe it?
GH: Actually yes, language can trip me up …on the one hand I feel that all my previous studies, experiments, struggles, discoveries are what enables me to create my current work - on the other hand, for the viewer, it’s not important to know the background history. Indeed, as you suggest, it can get in the way! In my language of color and tone, it's as if I see through a magnifying glass. I blend colors in a way that is connected to how light and shadow move across and through surfaces, evoking varying densities and depths of field. Colors have their own peculiar interactions with each other and I discover their possibilities while making the painting, continually adjusting the temperature and tonality of both grounds until the foreground reverberates in the way I am searching for. Background references can interfere with this open ended, perceptual experience. I keep my titles deliberately simple - referring only to the date on which they were painted and their foreground / background colors. I am considering omitting the colors, as they are often too ‘hybrid’ to summarize! I keep notes for my own reference to remember the color ‘events ‘ that happened at the time of painting.
Gwen Hardie in her studio
SF: When I visited your studio I was struck by how much variety you’ve been able to tease out of your minimalist tendencies. It was really exciting to see. Can you talk about how you developed your current working method and how you push the boundaries of this process?
GH: Thank you! My practice feels very rooted in the present while I am working - but there’s this thing where one painting suggests another - there’s a sweet spot for a moment of completing a painting to my satisfaction - often after a struggle - but almost a second later - I mentally start imagining the next work… there’s a …”what if I try the foreground a little darker/lighter ” or …”bring the radiance of the foreground out to a greater or lesser extent..” etc., etc. I also tell myself that I have no investment in the result, that I am happy to try again tomorrow - its fine to get rid of the paint at the end of the day - this allows me to push forwards in a kind of free abandon (the dark patina of my studio floor bears witness!). However, to your question - the longer answer might be that there is an accumulation of inner resources that are sustaining my ability to "tease out variety." Elements of past research and work resurface in different ways. For example, looking back, my ‘inner library’ of color and tone likely began in the life class at the aforementioned Edinburgh College of Art. More recently, between 2008 - 2018, this ‘inner library’ grew with my tondo project of magnified portions of skin. I expanded the reach of my palette to include the full range of skin tones from darkest to lightest, coolest to warmest. The fascination in each painting was the subtle beauty of an individual’s skin tone - in particular how the skin tone ‘glows’. I bring that animated radiance into a more distilled and abstract language now.
Another resource of infinite variety is the full spectrum of light and shadow in nature. I am particularly interested in the variations of temperature (from warm to cool) that sunlight, moonlight and their corresponding shadows produce in any given 24 hour cycle on the earth, both on surfaces up close and in open vistas across great distances. A new fascination is with how foreground colors appear to absorb or reflect light. The interaction between background and foreground determines this - in some cases it’s possible to create a foreground that appears to do both. These kinds of perceptual effects are so subtle and can only be realized in the moment while painting.
Gwen Hardie | 02.09.2023, Reddish Black on Pthalo Green, 2023 | Oil on canvas | 24 x 24 inches
SF: As reductive as they are, your paintings always seem to be leading dynamic, layered lives: first, as atmospheric and mysterious portals to nowhere in particular; and second, as objects with a strong physical presence. Can you talk about how you balance these two tendencies in your work?
GH: I love this incisive question! Holding these two fundamental elements in balance - the physical and the non physical - are somehow what it’s all about - in life and in art! Your own work, if I may mention, really comes to mind! My painting is an alchemic process. For me, the transformation from the flat shape to a three dimensional illusion is what brings the painting to life. I like the taut canvas, the folded corners, the flat shape. When you look from the side, you see a trace of the stain of the background color, but the oil film stops at the front edge- revealing exactly what it is in physical form. The act of painting is very time pressured for me- the film of oil paint starts to stiffen at a certain point while blending - I also think of the oil film as a concrete thing that has its own integrity. The magic occurs for me when the colors start to reverberate and somehow come to life within this film of oil paint. Each painting presents a floating foreground color over a background color - but rather than just floating - the foreground color seems also embedded into the background color and by extension the actual canvas. I keep manipulating / blending the gradients of color saturation and tonal levels until the foreground radiates both outwards and inwards in space. The transitional ‘walls,’ as I think of them, play such an active role in achieving this illusion. In fact, sometimes I think these transitional walls are the key to everything, and yet they engage almost on a subliminal level! It's here in the interstices between grounds that the transformation between the physical and the non-physical can be realized.
Gwen Hardie | 06.23.23, Radiant Pink on Indian Red, 2023 | Oil on canvas | 60 x 60 inches
SF: I’m drawn to the way your paintings confidently exist as quiet alternatives to a world filled with noise, lies and a million reasons to be anxious. Can you talk a bit about how you see your work in relation to the moment we’re in right now?
GH: Thank you! Indeed the world is so polarized, unjust and violent, though I wonder if it has always been like this ..maybe it’s just that we are more aware now in this digital age? To your question: I can’t find much in the current socio-political moment to be inspired by, actually, so I look for inspiration where I can find it - I look to a broader context across cultural and historical divides to find connections. At the moment, I am reading Dore Ashtons book, “About Rothko.” Interestingly, most of the liberating steps towards abstraction in the New York School of painters in the the 50's grew out of the context of despair after World War two. It’s true, too, that Buddhism is a source of inspiration to me. Maybe I should say ‘was’ in that I hardly ever meditate now - the daily practice of painting bears some connection to meditation though it’s clearly also very different.
One amazing human being who inspired me towards Buddhism was the late Vietnamese zen master Thich That Hahn, who was very active in promoting peace after the Vietnam war (and was expelled from Vietnam for being too neutral as a pacifist). I went to several mindfulness training retreats in France with him when I lived in London. Ultimately, I felt a bit of an imposter as I knew that I wanted to take the revelations I was experiencing through meditation and the dharma back into my life as an artist (the more noble goal in this context - and rightfully so - is to bring the practice into the community through engaged buddhism). Nevertheless, the experiences I had through meditation were profound - they gave me a depth of sense perception that I cant ‘undo’ and that are always present and pushing forwards in various ways in my work. Buddhism - in particular zen - is a way of thinking and being - a devotion to practice, the importance of cultivating awareness rooted in the present.
I can see connections between this way of thinking and certain art practices, throughout history and in our time - the insistence on the present, reducing language to essential components, engaging in actual experience rather than narratives of experience. The possibility of seeing for the first time - being able to see and experience beyond mental constructs - is something that both art and buddhism share. It’s not necessary to declare it. Indeed, another way of "tripping up" (to use your phrase) might be to draw emphasis to any spiritual practice in relation to art, as the word ‘spiritual’ is too loaded with preconceived ideas.
Three works on a studio wall
SF: Whose work have you been looking at recently?
GH: Recently, I am grateful to 57W57 Arts for showing my work here in NYC and connecting me to a community of artists such as yourself, where I find strong aesthetic connections. The notion of relativity, for example, embedded into your work, where the outer edge determines how the interior of the work is perceived, strikes a chord with me. I also continue to be inspired by the New York school of early abstract expressionists - in particular Rothko - also Albers, Ad Reinhardt and the Light and Space movement artist James Turrell. Beyond the US, some of the artists that inspire me are the late Morandi and the contemporary South Korean artist, Taik Kim Sang.
SF: I love that list of artists and I appreciate the shout-out. Thank you. What’s next for you?
GH: I will be showing with Arden and White in New Canaan, Connecticut from July 5 July to August 20th, then in October at The Hague Art Fair in the Netherlands, represented by ASAP Gallery and Chabot Fine Art. I am collaborating in upcoming new projects for larger scale works with Dolby Chadwick in San Francisco and will be represented by The Finch Project at The London Art Fair in January 2024. My work will also be available with Dimmitt Contemporary Art in Houston and in ongoing collaborations with The Spaceless Gallery, based in Miami and Paris.