Each of The Color Prophesies, a series of fifteen paintings by Ginnie Gardiner, shows a figure with an open book. Her figures are looking, not reading, for their books contain reproductions of paintings and images of other kinds. As we look at them looking, we begin to see that the artist raises questions about the meaning of visual art. Does a painting’s meaning emerge from its depiction of people and things? Or is meaning produced by the painting’s play of colors and forms? You might say: both; form and content interact to charge a painting with the import I find in it. This is a sensible answer but too general to be of much help in understanding what it is, for example, to depict a person or a thing. And it has nothing to say about the difficulty of making a sharp distinction between form and content.
Ultimately, it is impossible to account for a painting’s meaning. We can only speculate. In the case of The Color Prophesies our speculations are helped by the aphorisms that accompany the series. These are work of the artist’s husband Jon Phillips, a writer and artist—and the figure seen in close-up in many of these paintings. Presented in sequence, his aphorisms become the lines of a poem addressed to all fifteen paintings and their creator. Read in tandem with a single painting, each aphorism suggests with subtle tact a way to see—and to think about—the image that confronts us. I am going to focus on two of these pairings. Both show a man standing as he looks through the pages of a large book.
Natural History, 2018, is paired with this: “A painting can make us imagine the world it inhabits.” On first reading, the subject of the aphorism seems to be representation. Natural History is figurative and so of course it refers to the world beyond its frame—or, rather, to that portion of the world occupied for a certain time by its immediately recognizable motif. And there we could leave it if the word “imagine” did not appear where we might expect to find “see.” This substitution suggests that Natural History is not merely a reflection, not a mirror into which we look to see its subject. Rather, it is an opaque and luminous surface over which vision ranges as it discovers, as it reconstructs, the visual subtleties the artist has constructed.
No doubt a viewer in a hurry could see Natural History as simply representational. But its verbal accompaniment encourages us to slow down, to take the time not merely to see but to imagine—and to intuit, eventually, that our perceptions are just the raw materials for the creative process that delivers us the shifting, always ambiguous world that we share with works of art. Thus the first aphorism points to subtleties of representation. The second—“Or it can inhabit a world in its own image.”—tilts toward abstraction with the suggestion that, by constituting its own world, a painting can be a reflection of (or on) itself. Yet this aphorism appears with Window, 2018, a variant on Natural History. And The Color Prophesies include more images of a man reading a book. Each is structured by its own rich color system, hence each has its own quality of brilliant daylight. Either aphorism could join with any of these paintings, to alert us to the complexity that renders them inexhaustible: representational one moment, abstract the next, and always alive to the imaginative energy that we bring to them.
Natural History, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 40 x 30 inches
Window, 2018, Oil on Linen 45 x 30 inches