A Woman Who Looks `Into and Through'

A WOMAN artist doesn't have to make paintings or sculpture about her own femininity. A few years back, however, there was little doubt, when Scottish artist Gwen Hardie's work was shown publicly, that this was her subject. One writer - Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton - described the ``real stuff'' of Hardie's work as ``the female's inner space.'' The same writer talked of her paintings as ``ideogrammatic projections of the artist's body image.''

These Hardie paintings were, not unlike Paleolithic cave paintings or aboriginal art, rather primitively stylized, even schematized. At the same time they were bouyant, jubilant works with the feeling near the surface. They were in no way clinical, and not at all anatomical in an academic, conventional way. They were works of imagination, however close to self-experience, and the last thing they seemed to do was illustrate some solemnly intense theory.

But the point then being made about Hardie's paintings was that - against the still-prevailing drift of millennia of male artists depicting female bodies - they were a woman's view of woman's body; an insider's view. They had a kind of innocence, and went beyond the merely banal depiction of the female form, either maternal or erotic, as in male art, because they were to do with her awareness and no one else's.

I recently had the opportunity of talking to Gwen Hardie in Edinburgh - where she had gone to the College of Art (1979-1983) before escaping, for the sake of challenge, to West Berlin.

Fischer Fine Art Ltd. of London and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art earlier this spring showed her recent paintings and sculpture. Displayed on the walls of the large gallery where we talked were sizeable monochrome oil paintings. It was hard to connect these with Hardie's earlier figurative works. She agreed: ``They're almost nonreferential, they exist within their own terms.''

The paintings of the human form, she said, had been from ``a nonvoyeuristic point of view, from within, expressed from oneself and one's own dynamics. They were always, in a way, myself, you know.'' She has come to feel these earlier paintings about her body were ``too fixed in their message - overloaded with meaning, in a kind of illustrated, literary way,'' but the reason she painted them still seems valid to her.

The black and white paintings - some of the latest have a third color, ochre, in them - strike her as ``incredibly simple.'' Still coming from ``within'' they seem to be more about seeing or vision than about body as such. Their rough patchworks of light and shadow, of bumps and hollows, are like something small seen close-up, magnified even, like the pores of skin, part of a much larger whole.

``For me,'' Hardie says, ``it's an illusion I get of looking through and into.'' These pictures form a group, and they are different from previous work in that their process did not involve premeditation. As she made them, the image tended to take over, and what emerged in the end was as much of a surprise to her as to anyone else.

She points to one of them - ``It's like a suction chamber, you're being sucked into the very inside of it - schlooeep!''

If the geometric edge of the canvas is a ``window,'' then she paints the view within it as ``a kind of anarchy going on,'' everything ``irregular or at random within the rigidity of the conventional picture frame, things in a state of flux.'' Actually there is more structure to them than this might suggest, but it is almost lost in the urgency and impact of the paint.

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.''

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?''

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