“You breathe more here,” says Ginnie Gardiner, standing in the courtyard of her Federal-era home in Catskill, New York. And you can see that fresh air in Gardiner’s recent paintings, sun-streaked portraits and landscapes that attest to the dramatic impact of her move upstate after a quarter-century in a Manhattan loft. Yet these bold, assured images have unmistakable affinities with the cool modernism of Gardiner’s still lifes from the 1980s and the vibrant interplay between figuration and abstraction in her collage-inspired paintings of the ‘90s. They indicate the continuity of her formal concerns even as she opens up her work to the sights and sounds of her new environment.
The shimmering gradations of blue in Leisure
the interplay of grays and greens in Nina
demonstrate that color is still of paramount importance to Gardiner. Her palette has shifted towards tertiary colors, and color defines form much more than it did in her still lifes—look at the jagged mass of cobalt blue mixed with mars violet that delineates the sides of a face and neck in Hud,
or the bands of color deployed to limn the deliberately abstracted backgrounds of Aside
“I want the color to create the spatial sense, not my drafting,” she comments.
Space is another central concern—but pictorial space, not realistic space. Though her current works seem and in some ways are representational, they’re not painted directly from life, nor do they aim to capture a moment in time. Gardiner works from collage maquettes, a technique she developed in the mid-‘90s so that she could combine photographs, swatches of color, painted fragments, bits of drawing, or anything else she liked, into a unified visual whole. A painting’s structure is determined before she sets brush to canvas, achieved by manipulating the various elements to get the precise arrangement she wants. Nina, for example, began as a photograph of the subject against a fireplace; Gardiner created an outdoor background in the maquette by combining multiple views of her friend’s garden. She has no qualms about using digital technology to facilitate her process, or even to adjust colors; it’s simply another tool, in her mind, to serve the artist’s vision.
The process can take a while, which doesn’t worry Gardiner; she will sometimes spend months looking at a maquette and thinking, “This can’t be a painting yet.” Similarly, she tends to work simultaneously on multiple paintings, under no compulsion to finish them on a schedule. Depending on how she feels, she might turn her attention to a hat in one canvas, or to the edge that demarcates a transition between slashes of color in another. She’s scaled back from the monumental diptychs and triptychs of the ‘90s, allowing paintings to find their natural size. “You can make a big small picture,” she says, quoting Icelandic-American painter Louisa Matthiasdottir, whose clarity of light and reductive treatment of form has made her, along with Alex Katz and Lois Dodd, a formative influence on this new phase of Gardiner’s artistic evolution.
And it is quite new, for all its connections to her previous work. Gardiner’s paintings of the ‘90s zestfully blend images drawn from Old Masters, old movies, contemporary advertising, and a whole lot more to communicate the artist’s take on our plugged-in, information-overloaded society. They are dreamscapes, steeped in the ethos of surrealism and the pictorial architecture of cubism, throbbing with the energy of urban life yet removed from its physical particulars. Working in a studio nine floors above a street cacophonous with truck and human traffic, Gardiner learned to shut out the noise and focus on her paintings’ internal dramas. Now, in a workspace with tall, arched windows overlooking a quiet village, able to step out the door into a tranquil courtyard, she has become more responsive to input from the natural world and the historic architecture around her in Catskill.
Recent paintings like Lisa’s View
convey a powerful sense of place, even though Gardiner remains uninterested in literal reproductions of reality. A 2014 post on her web site gives insight into her thinking—and her influences—in a quote from Henri Matisse: “Instead of merely transcribing visual sensations–instead of seeking merely to copy nature–the artist should, rather, condense these sensations. Working toward serenity by means of simplification, he will be able to produce a more vivid, less accidental representation of the subject, lodged in the entire compositional arrangement of the work of art.” Gardiner’s distinctive use of this concept can be seen especially clearly in April,
a 2013 work with radically simplified shapes that approaches total abstraction while fulfilling Matisse’s mandate to condense her perceptions into “a more vivid, less accidental representation”—in this case, of the expectant light of early spring as manifested in the shadows cast by bare tree branches. Fulfilling a personal aesthetic conception proceeds hand in hand with close observation, she notes, appreciatively citing Neil Welliver’s playful remark about color: “curiously, if you’re making it up, you have to look more and more at the real thing in order to get it right.”
April reveals another key influence on Gardiner, who has always been an attentive student of other artists’ work and ideas. Any painter who loves color as much as she does is bound to admire Josef Albers, and his Homage to the Square series is also important to her for its rigorous ordering of the picture plane. In April, mixing opaque oil paints to create the illusion of transparency in the shadows on a building façade, Gardiner was inspired by Albers’ lifelong preoccupation with combining opacity and translucency.
Those qualities are intimately related to the most immediately evident and pervasive presence in Gardiner’s current work. Light has always been a factor in her paintings, but the move to Catskill and the shift to outdoor settings has made natural sunlight a palpable force in their composition and content. So palpable sometimes, as in the photograph that led to a self-
portrait simply entitled Light,
that Gardiner did minimal tinkering with the visual elements on her maquette. “The light was so strong,” she explains, “that it gave me what I needed without having to simplify too much.” Light is more obviously manipulated in the charming, sun-dappled portrait Michele, but here too we feel Gardiner savoring light’s inherent properties as she shapes it to her artistic ends. It suffuses her work process even when she’s in the studio; windows with both eastern and western exposure provide many different varieties of sunlight over the course of a day and across the seasons.
The word light comes to mind with another meaning when looking at Gardiner’s recent paintings. They display a lightness of touch and economy of means that comes to the mature artist only after years of reflection and refinement of craft. Extraneous details have been eliminated so that the image is honed to its essential components. “You become more reductive over time,” says Gardiner. “You look at a composition and think, ‘I don’t need all that!’” She has simplified her work to a core “gallery of shapes and spaces”; she seeks always to “get to a pure level of color.” These are not easy paintings—the visual language is too sophisticated for that—but they radiate a sense of ease with the creative process, a sheer relish for the act putting paint on canvas that makes them deeply satisfying and pleasurable.
“She recalls us to the fullness of the moment,” critic Carter Ratcliff wrote in a laudatory essay about Gardner’s 2014 exhibition at the Harrison Gallery in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Indeed she does: not to a particular moment in time, but to a moment in art. The slanting play of light on folds of fabric in Aside; the shimmering, translucent blue of swimming pool water contrasted with the flat, opaque gray of the Hudson River below in Lisa’s View; the briskly simplified shock of white hair in Michele echoed by the abstracted splashes of sun on the window behind her; these joyful images invite us to luxuriate in the delights of paint as wielded by a masterful hand—and to appreciate the invigorating effect a change of scenery has had on an artist always seeking to explore fresh territory.
Wendy Smith is a former contributing editor of Art & Auction and writes monthly coverage of art books for Sotheby’s Magazine. She is a contributing editor of The American Scholar, which has published more than a dozen of her essays on literature and the performing arts over the past decade. She writes frequently for American Theatre magazine and contributes book reviews regularly to the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and the Daily Beast.