The Color Prophecies

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The Color Prophecies

Paintings and Collages that integrate abstraction with representation.

Mexico shook Josef Albers loose from the greys and blues of the North and inspired Albers to use magenta, turquoise, violet, and ocher, among other colors, in varying combinations. These are the colors of nature and everyday culture in Mexico.  Pure, “out of the can” colors like those used as house paint or in advertisements, take their natural place with the red earth and turquoise skies.  Our society and popular culture has since metabolized the intuitions of Albers, and in this series I’m seeking a re-integration of that special dialog he achieved with the conscious and material reality formed by painting that joins abstraction with representation.

The Color Prophecies is a new series begun in September, 2016. In it I am exploring where color predicts and dictates certain interactions.  For the creation and design of these images I am painting solid color mixtures on woodblock papers to use for backgrounds and various planar elements with isolated figural elements from my photographs. These mixed media collages function as the studies for my paintings.

I have been working with the premise of creating paintings with specific color palettes for many years.  For me, it is a working process that is endlessly fascinating. I was never interested in attacking the blank canvas or putting down one mark and seeing where that led me. Of course this is a subject that has been written about with many variations. The practice of  orchestrating the colors in a painting to register in a particular key is my approach. 


Time Traveling with Tiepolo

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In the mid 1990s I was creating scroll-like  oil paintings that were, on average, 12 feet long. This format was  influenced in large part by my position in the mid 1980s in New York City as a commercial producer working with the new Ampex Digital Optics (ADO) technology and the art directors who were creating digitally layered videos for commercials and music videos. When I discovered Giambattista Tiepolo’s frescoes and oil paintings in the the late 1990s’ I noticed that Tiepolo preferred an extended strip, a non-illusionistic composition with elements multiplied and splintered, and figures striking attitudes and looking out to the audience. He preferred the horizontal scroll and employed it to great effect in his work for the Residenz in Wurzburg in the mid 18th Century. This was a revelation for me and I further studied this Baroque master.

In 1750 Tiepolo arrived in Wurzburg, capital of Franconia, Germany. His patron, Prince-Bishop Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau had commissioned him to paint frescoes for one of the staterooms, the Kaisersaal, in the palace, as well as the staircase of the Residenz. In the creation of my Tiepolo – themed series of paintings from 1998 – 2000, I studied the details of the staircase frescoes and paintings from the staterooms and immersed myself in the writings of Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxandall, who wrote, ‘Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence.” Quoting from their text, the following passage sums up my personal approach in the creation of these images and my interest in exploring the gestural motifs from the Baroque era: “The mind plays with images, and they can take different forms: figures can drift between two and three dimensions before full recognition; they are curiously medium-free; they can move in slow motion….the array displays a coherence, but is strange or bizarre; time is not an issue.”

I was reminded recently of a comment one of my drawing professors at Cornell University, Peter Kahn, (brother of the painter Wolf Kahn), made during a critique of my sketchbook. He told me to look at Tiepolo – that we share a similar style in the depiction of figures and folds of cloth. I had forgotten that. On looking at his painting style, I found I could actually move my wrist and arm with the paintings, following his lines as they moved in and around the spaces of his work. I felt that, just as Tiepolo ‘took on’ Veronese as in repertory, I could take on Tiepolo and integrate his images into my figural compositions of the time.


Capricorn 1999 Oil on Canvas 48 x 60 inches

Quoted from ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ and ‘Patience Innocence and Chastity’

This is a highly layered, processional composition I employed frequently. It is sequential in the sense that one shape or form suggests another and is very much about edge, contour, and the surface qualities of stone and fabric.

Excerpt from ‘Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence’ (TAPI) P. 40:

‘Tiepolo makes a pattern out of the bodies and props which takes his favored form of a strip – here settled around the lower rim of the rounded and accentuated at one point by the elevated cross…. Events, like bodies, are taken apart and recombined. We are distracted by incongruous connections, mysterious but, perceptually fun.’


Tiepolo Flight 800 1999 Oil on Canvas 48 x 60 inches

Quoted from ‘The Investiture of Bishop Harold as Duke of Franconia’

(TAPI): ‘But the solemn or grinning child who looks out at us with curiosity or amusement from within a Tiepolo picture seems to ask us what is it we are doing out there, looking at a painting.’ – We are viewers watched. When the tables are turned on us, and by a child, we become aware of the oddity of being caught in the act of looking.’ {The painting has entered the present through the act of making us self-conscious of its narration incorporating the viewer into its consciousness – the observer, observed; the voyeur revealed. Toto has pulled away our curtain as a spectator and distracted us from the very trick the artist always plays upon us.}

Here is Tiepolo’s total absorption of Veronese’s colored shadows. As I paint the folds of the dress from a contemporary fashion shoot on the left side of my canvas, my palette answers Tiepolo’s in the employment of pure complementary shadows of pink and turquoise green. Also, as with the garments of Tiepolo’s page, the pazzouli earth red, vermilion and minium orange in the flesh tones of the fashion model’s hand holding the cloth of the dress are complementary to the cloth. Chromatically, my color mixtures are created with the desire to bathe all of the elements in a diffuse luminosity. The central portion of the painting, a detail from a photo of the TWA Flight 800 crash, was part of the media at the time. There were several significant terrorist attacks in the decade prior to 9/11.


Visitation 1999 Oil on Canvas 60 x 48 inches

Quoted from a detail of the fresco Triumph of Apollo

This painting feels autobiographical in some sense and I’m not sure why but pairing the female figure in a blue ‘hoody’ looking upon this scene of the gods frolicking in the clouds is some kind of commentary on the artist being outside of the action, the observer, and also my place in society as a woman and the power of women in fashion as opposed to most other male dominated areas.

 Venice Beach 1999 Oil on Canvas 48 x 60 inches

Quoted from a detail from the fresco the Institution of the Rosary at Santa Maria Dei Gesuati

What drew me to the image was the magical bleached out quality of the clouds and sun in the cobalt violet, pearlescent gray and rose hues. These colors played well with the pink clothed models in a Donna Karan ad in fashion magazines at the time. Their draped forms echoed those of Tiepolo and Veronese.

I mirrored supplicating arms with slashing verticals, looking for a rhythmic build of similar colors and shapes in a futuristic style.



Journey 1999 Oil on Canvas 60 x 48 inches

The figure on the left feels like a freestanding or floating sculpture – the constant sense of twisting, of multiple views of the figure. The wonderfully animated figures as I free-associated and simultaneously mixed batches of cobalt yellow and ultramarine blues and violets seemed oddly contemporary, a sort of twisty Versace theatricality. The young boy, the voluptuous curves of the soldiers back with the plumed helmet are quoted from Scipio Africanus Freeing Massiva, a painting I studied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.



Opera Prima 1999 Oil on Canvas 60 x 48 inches

The detail of the staircase fresco of the Wurzburg Residenz, with the personification of Africa provided my main focus for Opera Prima. But, aside from the subject matter I was searching for elements that would start to dissolve into a dream-like sequence, combining specificity with indeterminate passages. The composition is triangular with the female figure at the apex and the vases, folds and fronds cascading from the center.


The Message 1999 Oil on Canvas 48 x 60 inches

Quoted from “Ascent of Mount Cavalry

John Rupert Martin: Baroque, P. 73: “What chiefly distinguishes the Baroque attitude from that of the Renaissance is the urge to expand the range of sensual experience and to deepen and intensify the interpretation of feelings.”

In the late 1990s’ I was continually arranging historical and contemporary images, cutting into them and juxtaposing them, looking for underlying connections among them. In ‘The Message’ the connective tissue is in the patterning of the cloth and the twisting of the forms.

The shining silver horse where we see his rump, face and mane inspired the decorative almost puzzle-like assemblage, complementing the cobalt turquoise Versace elements with the highly keyed mustard, vermilion and yellow-gold garments and embroidered cloth of Tiepolo’s scene.

Scorpio’s Tale 2000 Oil on Canvas 60 x 48 inches

Scorpio’s Tale quotes a detail from Tiepolo’s The Investiture of Bishop Harold as Duke of Franconia,  a fresco on the north wall of the Kaisersaal. The Braque element on the left in the painting echoes the painted stucco on the right, just as the stripes of the contemporary gown dialog with Tiepolo’s Arabian figure. Operatic and processional with a monumental aspect to the figures, Scorpio’s Tale was a luxuriant painting for me, a tactile, sensuous painting experience.









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.