“It’s the snakes and ladders thing,” says Gabriel Hartley when we retreat to a quiet corner during his buzzing private view at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery to discuss the brand new works assembled. The London-based artist relates the ladder motif, recurrent in the exhibited works such as Lax and Ladder (both 2014), to “the idea of fate… moving towards something, and then sometimes it will fall back. It’s kind of like a painting analogy.”
It’s telling that the most prominent iconographic trope within this body of work loops us back into the process of making. Everything about the exhibition is redolent of process and the works on show are united by a palpable joy in materiality. When I ask Pippy Houldsworth if she’s visited the artist’s studio she grins as she describes surfaces thick with paint.
Hartley has always been both a sculptor and a painter, and the two practices are intimately connected in his work. A close kinship is discernible here—both paintings and sculptures are characterized by a rich, textural quality that makes you want to reach out and touch. Coloring is complex in both cases. Bright neons leap out yet a long process of layering and removing paint creates an overall effect that is steady, integrated, and controlled. In fact, the relationship goes beyond mere appearance. Hartley has used the foam off-cuts from which the sculptures are made as stamps to press snaking forms onto some of the canvases. The foam is later cast through a process of freezing in resin. By showing the paintings and sculptures side by side, the exhibition draws out the solidity of the paintings and the linearity of the sculptures, positioning them as two sides of a coin, and as interlinked facets of a very particular vision.
Hartley’s dynamic, textural abstractions draw comparisons with his 20th-century forebears. When asked whether there are particular movements or artists with whom he finds an affinity he names Josef Beuys, who also employed the ladder as a symbolic device in his work, and Dieter Roth, saying he is drawn to artists with “scatalogical” tendencies in their work. I mention Abstract Expressionism and Hartley concurs; of course, monumental canvases such as Lozenges (2014) and Phase (2014) inevitably make that reference. “Either Pollock or Monet,” he says after a pause, alluding of course to the latter’s huge waterlily paintings. It’s a reference that initially takes you by surprise, but sit with it a while and it makes sense. The vigorous, dancing compositions and flashes of fluorescence that bring power and energy to these works are tempered by compositional care and a deft and subtle use of color. Up the ladders and down the snakes, a balance of sorts is maintained.