by Mark Van Proyen

The three largest paintings in Gwen Hardie’s current exhibition are 60 by 60 inches square, while the remaining 19 are smaller, in many cases much smaller. All are untitled excepting for an indication of their main colors, and almost all painted in 2023. All are executed on square canvas formats so as not to allude to the idea of vertical portraiture or horizontal landscapes. Many of them are too large to be labeled small, while the majority are not large enough to evoke the abstract-sublime aesthetics of color field painting.

Gwen Hardie |  06.23.23, radiant pink on Indian red, 2023 | Oil on canvas  | 60 x 60 inches

We could be forgiven for seeing them as monochromes, but they are, in fact, something more subtle and far more intricate. They are richly saturated polychromes executed in multiple layers of diluted oil paint that result in optical mixtures that coalesce into what appears as a singular color. This effect mirrors how a multiplicity of musical notes can harmonize into a single chord. This is accomplished by way of a modified glaze technique that harks back to the fifteenth century, a technique that has fallen out of favor during the past two centuries. It facilitates subtle refractions of light, lending the paintings an inner luminosity.

Gwen Hardie |  07.04.23, radiant purple on umber grey, 2023 | Oil on canvas  | 60 x 60 inches

Despite their apparent simplicity, Hardie’s surfaces achieve remarkable depth and resonance, with only the faintest sign of distinct brushstrokes. The artist applies the colors with a fan spreader brush that she changes up between wet-into-wet and wet-into-dry applications. Also visible are shifts in the amount of linseed oil that Hardie uses in her paint medium, allowing her to precisely modulate the reflectivity of her surfaces. 

 

The exhibition divides into three color schemes that are revisited in multiple variations. The major portion manifests in tight spectrums of yellow-orange, pink and the occasional understated green, tipping their hats to the spectral atmospherics of J.M.W. Turner’s famous seascapes. A few works are delicately executed explorations of off-white pearlescence, resembling translucent porcelain lit from behind. Another subgroup presents variations on red wine, looking at once like forthright surfaces while also appearing as deep pools of undifferentiated nocturnal space. If they were comparable in scale, they would compare favorably to Mark Rothko’s late paintings ensconced at Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Hardie’s paintings balance their mysteries with a beguiling preciousness that makes them seem much larger than they are. 

Gwen Hardie |  06.21.23, venetian red and Naples yellow on Indian red, 2023 | Oil on canvas  | 60 x 60 inches

One way of approaching these works is to see them as studies in complexion that exaggerate their nuance. Figure painters are always challenged by the need to capture realistic skin tones in highlights, mid-tones and shadows. Some, like Titian, make that complexity a hallmark of their work. It is easy to imagine that Hardie started as a figure painter and developed the work for this exhibition in the course of addressing those challenges.

Left: Gwen Hardie |  06.21.23, venetian red and Naples yellow on Indian red, 2023 | Oil on canvas  | 30 x 30 inches

Right: Gwen Hardie |  06.01.23, pale lavender on warm umber,  2023 | Oil on canvas  | 24 x 24 inches

In the 1990s, Byron Kim produced paintings that were based on the skin colors that reflected the options featured in an upscale cosmetics display, reducing skin color to a system of Pantone variations. In contrast, Hardie’s paintings eschew oversimplification by registering the subtleties of complexion. They remind us that the surfaces of paintings can be likened to skin — not only as a protective membrane that contains the body as a vessel contains liquid, but also as a breathing sieve that filters inflows of nourishment and trauma while also expelling toxins. If surface is the great revealer, as Oscar Wilde once wrote, then the radiant complexity of Hardie’s surfaces reveals all in ways that are excruciatingly intimate and worldly.

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