Ginnie Gardiner: Scale and Intensity, by Carter Ratcliff

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There is something reassuring about a child’s stick figure. With a circle and a few lines, long and short, it reminds us that we are hard-wired to recognize the human presence. The trouble with a stick figure is that it has no convincing way of inhabiting its world. It takes an artist of Ginnie Gardiner’s brilliance not only to flesh out the figure but also to make it fully present in a particular place. I am tempted to say that in the collage entitled Spectator III, 2014, the artist’s image of herself merges seamlessly with its surroundings. But if this were literally so, she would be lost in the play of form and color. In fact, she is vividly perspicuous: the form around which those of furniture and architecture organize themselves.  Throughout this exhibition, we see Gardiner bringing the body into a relationship with its immediate world that is comfortable and ever so slightly unsettled. It is this latter quality that leads us to recognize her form not only as human but as intensely self-aware.

Because Gardiner layers her collage-elements, the images in these works often have palpable edges. The collages are more assertively physical than her paintings, which take an airy impalpability from the light that fills them. And the forms in her collages take on a virtual weightiness in the course of her adjustments and readjustments. In the two collage-studies for Purple Dress, the figure is nearly identical.

Purple Dress Variation ©2014 Collage 7.75" x 6".web

Purple Transitions ©2014 Collage 6.75" x 5.75".web

The chief differences between these two works are to be found in the stripes of color that signify with elegant economy the figure’s setting. In one study, these stripes run vertically, along the left-hand edge; in the other, they are horizontal and thus echo the upper edge of the collage. In the painting, from 2014, Gardiner opts for the vertical placement and she heightens the stripes’ color key with a salmon pink that heightens, in turn, the purple of the dress. All three variations are successful, with each displaying its own, precisely calibrated degree of spatial expansiveness.

Nearly always, the formal structure—and space itself—is more compact in the collages than in the paintings. The collages, of course, are smaller and yet that is not the entire explanation, for the details of Gardiner’s images acquire a charge of condensed pictorial power from having been developed and refined in the more intimate medium. Transposed to canvas, her images gain not only in size but in scale. They feel larger, more open. Yet they lose none of the intimacy or the intensity bestowed on them by their origins.

 

Carter Ratcliff

Sunlit Stillness: Ginnie Gardiner’s Transformative Vision, by Carter Ratcliff

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Every fully realized oeuvre has a prevailing climate.  In Ginnie Gardiner’s paintings, the day is nearly always sunny—but never sweltering.  Flickering through her images with a serene and lively warmth, sunlight gives its luminosity even to shadows.  It’s tempting to say that Gardiner is an artist of summer at its most idyllic, yet this would ignore a crucial subtlety.  Certain of her paintings might well show us a moment early in spring, when the light takes its intensity from a slight, residual chill in the air.  And the shadows behind the figure in Spectator, 2013, have an autumnal resonance.  Or so it seems at certain moments.  We can’t be sure if this painting belongs to August or September, for Gardiner is not trying to document specific times of year.  She is creating her own weather, the climate of a world of her own invention.  This world engages us precisely because we can’t come to any final conclusions about it.  Always open to further interpretation, her paintings can never be relegated to that region of the past reserved for things we have fully understood.  Inexhaustible, they stay alive in the present.

The elusiveness of their season reappears, transformed, when we ask what sort of paintings they are.  The four canvases in this exhibition depict a woman—the artist herself—with clarity and concision.  At the center of Purple Dress 2014Purple Dress, 2013, is a diamond shape formed by the sitter’s forearms, her tilted shoulders, and the shin that provides this image with its main diagonal.  With surprisingly few tones, Gardiner has given this stretch of the figure’s right leg a fully and subtly articulated volume.  We sense the warmth of flesh in sunlight.  This is a figurative image, undeniably.  Yet the streak of high-keyed color running the length of the shin is so engaging in itself, as a shape, that our recognition of the artist’s subject is intermingled with an appreciation of this painting as sheer form.  Gardiner the representational painter seems, at moments, to become an abstractionist. 

Purple Dress is a picture of a woman sitting in a chair and wearing a dress that happens to be purple, yet the flicker of purples and grays on the sitter’s left sleeve—in fact, the play of color and tone in every region of the image—is so absorbing that we sometimes lose sight of the subject.  The pleasures of this absorption may well distract us from an insistent question: why would an artist cultivate ambiguities that distract us from a clear view of what, according to its title, the painting is about?  Unless they are militantly abstract, shouldn’t pictures focus our attention on the way things look?  The best answer to the latter question is that we shouldn’t be too certain that we know how things look.  The ambiguities of Gardiner’s paintings have the salutary effect of encouraging us—even inspiring us—to question not only what we see but also the experience of seeing. 

Though the title of Spectator III, 2014, refers to the figure leaning over the back of a chair and gazing into the distance, it could refer as well to a viewer caught up in the spectacle of color-stripes angling across the surface of the canvas.  As these stripes establish the shape of the dress the figure is wearing they also map a portion of that surface with a decisiveness that orients and clarifies everything else in the image—especially the angled elbow and knee.  Seen not as body parts but as visual forms, these elements of the image take on a kind of monumentality as we see how effectively they anchor and stabilize a wonderfully complex pictorial architecture.  By opening her figurative imagery to quasi-abstract readings of this kind, Gardiner is not removing her art from the world of everyday experience.  On the contrary, she is demonstrating, in the intuitive manner of an artist, how vision makes sense of that world. 

Spectator III 2014Far from passive reception of visible things, seeing is an active process.  One of painting’s abiding purposes is to slow down that process and render it more fully conscious.  So Gardiner gives us the chance to note, for example, how a certain patch of flat, luminous gray in Spectator III signifies a flat wall and, elsewhere in the painting, a similar patch molds the volume of a shoulder.  If, in the course of tracing this difference, we linger over the abstract beauty of these forms, so much the better, not only for beauty’s sake but also because it is fascinating to see how powerfully context shapes meaning.  Just as the word “light” can be a noun or a verb, part of an exclamation (“This rock is light.”) or even an imperative (“Light the stove.”), so any of Gardiner’s forms can be flat or rounded, opaque or translucent, depending on how and where she deploys it.  Thus her paintings do what works of art have always done: they rescue us from the unearned certainties of ordinary vision. 

However reliable they may seem, these certainties do not rest on a solid foundation.  In fact, they are little more than a communal agreement about the way things look and what they mean.  I don’t want to sound dismissive.  Without this largely unexamined agreement, day-to-day life would be impossible.  Our familiar, shared way of seeing the world has practical value.  Yet it can be oppressive for it is, after all, a deeply ingrained routine: a bundle of well-worn perceptual/conceptual habits that blur our attention and remove us from the flow of our own experience.  Rescuing us from that routine, artists put us back in the immediate present.  But only if we are willing to enter into a sort of collaboration, responding to visual cues and following their implications as far as we can.  Conscious seeing requires conscious effort, which we experience not as work but as pleasure.

Of course each artist has a distinctive way of unsettling our habits of seeing.  With the sunlit stillness of her paintings, Gardiner seizes our attention and holds it with pictorial subtleties that show us, by stages, that stillness is not stasis.  Presenting a precisely calibrated balance between figurative images and the harmonies of sheer form, each of her paintings oscillates between these two ways of seeing.   Subliminal at first, this oscillation becomes conscious as we begin to see ourselves seeing.  Encouraging us to be aware of how we make sense of the raw data of vision, Gardiner reminds us of our responsibility for the look—and the meaning—of our world. 

The danger of praising her in these terms is that it imputes a didactic purpose to her art, and that would be a distortion.  Far from trying to teach us anything, she reminds us of what we already know but are usually too distracted, too bent on some narrow purpose, to remember.  She recalls us to the fullness of the moment.  And she does this in a style so thoroughly her own that she recalls us, as well, to our own styles of seeing.  And of being.   For that is the largest purpose—or it might be better to say, the strongest effect—of her art: it reminds us of who we are, not as members of an audience but as individuals, each with a distinctive way of making sense of the lush complexities she offers.  – On View at The Harrison Gallery, Summer, 2014 – Essay by Carter Ratcliff

 

Carter Ratcliff is a poet, art critic, and Contributing Editor of Art in America. He is the author of The Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art and Andy Warhol: Portraits, among many other publications. His first novel Tequila Mockingbird is forthcoming in Spring 2015.

Ginnie Gardiner: At Ease with Creation, by Wendy Smith

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“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

 

Leisure ©2015 Oil on Canvas 30 x 30


the interplay of grays and greens in Nina


Nina ©2014 Oil on Canvas 48" x 24"



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,


Hud ©2014 Oil on Canvas 36" x 24"



or the bands of color deployed to limn the deliberately abstracted backgrounds of Aside

 

 

Aside ©2014 Oil on Canvas 40 x 30

 


and Michele.

 

 

 

Michelle.br.dwn.pt.bckt.left.125

 


“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

4. Ginnie Gardiner View from Lisa's ©2015 Oil on Canvas 36" x 24"



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,


Ginnie Gardiner April ©2013 Oil on Canvas 24" x 24"


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,

Ginner Gardiner 2014 OIl on Canvas 36x24


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.