In 1975, the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the expression “the flow”. Call it “the zone” or “mindfulness”, but essentially it is that moment of total, effortless, immersive concentration and energised joy in an activity. Two groups of people who often speak of this mental state are surfers and artists, with a surprising amount of overlap in communities by the sea. Scott Gardiner, also born in 1975, is a surfer who paints, or a painter who surfs, and the two are inexorably entwined in his love of the sea. In Gardiner’s case both are partially borne out of a desire for solitude and intuitive, meditative contemplation, which can be found alone in the studio staring at a blank canvas or looking to the horizon from a surfboard. It’s a feeling about place and spirituality that shares metaphors with a wide range of painters, indeed something that can only be accomplished in painting, from Mark Rothko to Colin McCahon. Spatially, Gardiner’s paintings are unmappable, a mood or atmosphere, a dream, putting it in the sphere of Surrealism.
This attempt to capture the essence of the sea informs Gardiner’s aesthetic vocabulary, synthesised from multiple visual sources. First and foremost there is the dance of sun on water itself, which many artists over the years have tried to capture; Claude Monet’s waterlilies floating serenely on the pond at Giverny; Henri Matisse’s Nice, David Hockney’s LA swimming pools; the decorative geometries of Art Deco and stained glass; the grids of modernism and the indigenous Pacific; Brett Whiteley’s epic panoramas of Sydney Harbour; the desolation of Caspar David Friedrich, and the San Francisco bays and estuaries of Richard Diebenkorn (an early influence); perhaps even a hint of the neon, sunsets and neo-classical flourishes of Miami Vice, since reborn as Vapourwave. The thing which unites all of these is the tension between the ephemeral and eternal, the desire to preserve a fleeting experience or impression and make a monument out of a moment.
The sea is an amniotic realm that touches and unites distant lands, the air and the abyss. It’s currents and tides have the potential of infinite possibilities of pattern and form on its surface, which seems to translate perfectly to the flatness of Gardiner’s paintings. Even at their most abstract, Gardiner is trying to show us the sea through his eyes, or rather his heart. Art is the closest work-around we have for Wittgenstein’s dictum that, “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.” Coming out of an emotionally difficult period in Gardiner’s life, the new paintings reflect the present, but also a nostalgic looking back to the simpler and more open world of possibilities and youthful hedonism of living as a philosophical surf bum in Sri Lanka in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He and his wife Bianca returned in 2004 until the Boxing Day Tsunami, but still regularly visit. In a sense this suite of works draws out and enlarges an intimate thread running through Gardiner’s Three Oceans project that began in 2015, uniting three loci of Gardner’s personal and artistic development and belonging: Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka; Sydney, Australia; and Gisborne, New Zealand, all connected by sea. These new works, however, are less anchored to physical geography than they are a state of mind and feeling.
As an MFA student at AUT in 2002/3, Gardiner became interested in the theories of Walter Benjamin, particularly the 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Benjamin’s notion of works of art having an “aura of authenticity”. In those works, Gardiner explored the idea of creating nearly identical painted images with all the emphasis on the complexity and time of the making itself. The subject matter was largely irrelevant beyond being an excuse to lay down and sand back gesso, to the point where even gesture and expression became meaningless and all trace of the artist, as an ego with an autobiography, erased. There is an element of that in this work. The monochromatic images of ocean (all in hues found naturally in the effects of light on the sea, if fleetingly) fractured by rhythmic geometrical forms, are nearly identical, but collectively elegiac and thought-provoking.
These geometrical forms fascinate. If the ocean is nature, chaos, the raw and untamed Id, they are logic and conscious reason, simultaneously fracturing it, deconstructing it, or else constraining the ocean like cage or a fence, protectively separating viewer and image with an aesthetic distance. It’s a little like Bertholt Brecht’s theory of Epic Theatre and its insistence on its own artifice, constantly breaking the fourth wall and eschewing naturalism in order to continually remind the audience that what they are seeing is symbolic rather than reality. Gardiner plays with the sea’s inherent ambiguities of optical depth, push and pull, figurative and abstraction. Sometimes he uses photographic images of the sea as a ground and interrupts our absorption with a geometric screen, as if to remind us that we’re looking at a painting full of complex meaning, not just gazing into an oceanic abyss that may, at any moment, gaze back. The geometries are sentries, like the angel with a fiery sword standing guard over the gates of Eden.
Much of the accessible appeal of Gardiner’s paintings, for all their contemplativeness, is that behind the special effects they are actually surprisingly traditional. At the heart of the work is spiritual allegiance to the Romantic movement with its emphasis on the Sublime, the charged meeting of subjective emotion and objective nature that overwhelms us at the transcendent wonder of the universe that can only ever be indirectly alluded to because it is impossible to explain. Gardiner tackles it from both ends, finding a particularly appealing synthesis between the dramatic landscape tradition of J. M. W. Turner and Caspar David Friedrich, and Romanticism’s last gasp, modernist abstraction’s purity of form. He tactfully packages this in a way we can cope with, with his delight in his subject. The artist is a shameless romantic. (Text by Dr. Andrew Paul Wood)
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