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, 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.
Far 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.
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.
Spectator III, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 48 x 36 inches
Purple Dress, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 24 inches