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A Woman Who Looks `Into and Through'

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She emphasizes that these paintings for her are ``very tactile, direct, immediate.'' She wants them to ``have a sense of overwhelming the viewer to an extent ... to have a physical imposition on the viewer.''

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Her sculpture, which variously depends on the wall, or leans against it standing on the floor, or stands independently and fully three-dimensional, is more easily seen as figurative. ``Figurative'' does not, however, necessarily imply reference to the human figure; it means ``not abstract.''

She says it is an ``issue'' for her that these works are made of separate pieces fitting together in various ways. Made of layered surfaces of papier mach'e over frameworks of chicken wire, the sculpture takes her work into the realm of re-invention, rather than symbol, illustration, or diagram.

Some of her earliest paintings depicting parts of the female anatomy were realistic, if exaggerated. Their effect on outsiders was not, perhaps, quite what she expected. She is an intuitive, not a calculating, kind of artist.

``You can't avoid a voyeuristic response to the parts of the body'' she learned, and says that she actually found her own work at that time ``embarrassing.'' But in her sculpture now ``it's translated into an aesthetic language and it is as much about this aesthetic language as the message.''

These works are not embarrassing to her. They are equivalents, metaphors. ``I am not at all a literal person,'' she says.

If her idea was taken to be overtly feminist a few years back, she now feels that ``to address such an issue head on ... the only snag for me is that everything becomes self-aware, self-conscious, even slightly bitter.'' What she is after is a much more unselfconscious kind of celebration - of being alive, of being female.

``I don't like to think politically,'' she says. ``...I do cherish the kind of magical qualities that can be found.... I realize that my work is overtly female in its strengths and I'm not trying to camouflage that in any way.'' She feels that to be an affirmative spirit and stretch herself to her borders, is bound to help women generally. But ``mostly feminist art is concerned with an attack, isn't it? And quite rightly! But I'm more interested in just, sort of, being me, really, and touching on some kind of magical elements that I don't know too much about.'' She doesn't think you ``have to be in the center of a debate.''

All the same she thinks it's ``wonderful that women are slowly and surely getting a chance'' - and notably, like herself, as artists. The freedom expressed by women artists now ``makes sense in a way because the women don't have the enormous weight of history upon them ... the `god figures' - there is this sense of uncovered territory.''

She herself is clearly an artist who relishes new territory and doesn't settle for other people's definitions of her or of art. A recent visit to West Africa resulted in some small, earthy works of yet another facet of her imagination; private, somewhat nostalgic, but for her their making was a kind of ``umbilical cord'' in a culture that challenged to its roots her European, Western sense of individualism. Now Gwen Hardie is wondering ``Where next?''