Words by Mercedes Smith
Kerry Harding is a landscape painter like no other, creating work that challenges both her viewers and the conventions of Cornish painting.
Image by Mollie Clothier
To refer to Kerry Harding as a landscape painter is both accurate, and utterly inadequate. Many artists create works which celebrate the pastoral or dramatic beauty of the outdoors, or works that explore the depths of human emotion through spectacular vistas, but Kerry is an artist whose paintings explore subliminal triggers, unconscious response and the sensorially weird. With a BA from Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, an MA in Fine Art Painting from Falmouth University and successful exhibitions in the UK, Australia, America and South Africa, Kerry has forged a career based on a new definition of landscape painting.
Pictorially, her paintings are a masterclass in colour and composition: a sober palette, highlighted with punches of startling colour, give each work an edgy, disconcerting feel against a backdrop of perfectly balanced space and shape. In terms of subject, her works take aspects of the landscape around her north Cornwall home and present them in a curious, semi-abstracted way that hints at peripheral vision rather than any direct translation of what is seen. “My work is about noticing - and not noticing - the things I encounter every day,” says Kerry when we meet at her Krowji studio. Those ‘things’ are details synonymous with Cornwall - wind bent trees, yellow gorse, ploughed fields, twisting paths, wind-blasted clifftops and the elegant, industrial silhouettes of aqueducts and bridges. Her way of making work, which involves reversing, turning or reworking old canvases, and a rhythm of applying and removing layers and layers of paint over time, mirrors the repetition and familiarity that define her engagement with the landscape. “It is my ongoing relationship with visually familiar things that inspires me to paint,” she tells me. “I work from memory and from photographs, and I paint, and then strip it all off again to leave only a shadow of what was there before. Then I will layer new applications of paint over the traces of past images and repeat that process again and again. I enjoy the on and off, the random reworking of the canvas until the image becomes whole.
“What I’m looking for is the richness of expression that comes from working a surface over and over again. A finished painting must have that history – those years of walking or running the same route through the landscape, reflected in the making and unmaking of the image.”
Back to Chapel
Referring to the dozens of finished and half-finished works that hang floor to ceiling in her bright, white studio, she explains: “Finished canvases may have spent months, sometimes years as unfinished works. We have history, these paintings and me, these places and me.” Just as every wall is covered with artworks, every surface is covered with reference books on artists, and a good deal of her studio time is spent absorbing knowledge and inspiration from 20th century master painters. “[Romantic landscape painter] Caspar David Friedrich and [Neo-romantic artist] Harald Sohlberg have been a constant influence on my work,” says Kerry, “in terms of the ‘sublime’ elements of the big, romantic vistas that inspired them. The ‘gods’ of my studio bookshelf, however - the most paint stained books!” she jokes, “are those of [Art Informel painter] Antony Tapies and [Abstract and Photorealist artist] Gerhard Richter.” At first, the variation of influences she describes is startling, and yet a moment’s consideration confirms that Romanticism, Abstraction, Photorealism and Art Informel or ‘matter painting’, where materials and process are prioritised over subject, are all evident in the emotive, semi-abstract, semi-figurative and highly worked surfaces of her paintings. “Richter is the painter’s painter,” she continues. “I referred to his work a great deal at the start of my career regarding the scope and possibility of my chosen medium, and I’ve referred to him more recently to affirm the validity of the journey I’ve taken from abstraction back to more representational work. Tapies, I think, pushes me to think outside the box – to question every instinct and consider the opposite. His example has taught me to strive for surprises, and continually develop my practice towards images I’ve never considered or seen before”.
Above: Quay Top Green
Below: Stratacumulous II | Harvest Squall
The passion with which Kerry talks about her work, and the work of others, is evidence of an artist immersed in her practice and the mindset of artistic progression. What causes her, I ask, to work on so many paintings, so constantly, with so much energy and focus? “I’m compelled to do it,” she tells me. “It’s a necessity for me to make sense of the world, for my observations to be ‘got out of my head’ so I can make room for more. I constantly feel there are works on the tip of my tongue, and I have a constant need to grasp what’s round the corner, not by changing my work, but by taking each thing I learn and improving. I think it’s part of wanting to surprise myself, and the idea of taking the viewer on that journey is an equally important motivation. I try to give viewers something that they know, but is uncertain in a way that makes them want to look more. I like the longevity of interest that intrigue and subtle disconcertion can give to a work of art.”
Kerry achieves this disconcertion by combining figurative subjects with the trickeries of flat paint, skewed perspective and the downright visually incorrect. Her works are hard to define, but landscape is the constant that holds them together. “Landscape is always going to be a big part of what I paint,” says Kerry. “This particular landscape on the north coast of Cornwall, at the edge of the Atlantic, is probably the reason for that. This is a landscape of subtle surfaces and textures, of ocean tides, big skies and weather systems. The potential for oddities of nature, or of light, are endless on this peninsula. Despite, or perhaps because of that, I feel more comfortable here than anywhere else in the world, and I think that’s due to the objectivity this landscape gives me. It’s wild, uncontrollable and exposed, and that puts everything else into perspective. I’m not a spiritual person in the religious sense, but this is perhaps as close as it gets.”
See Kerry Harding’s work at Krowji Open Studio on Saturday 30th November and Sunday 1st December, and this winter at Byre Gallery, and Far and Wild Living. See krowji.org.uk, thebyregallery.co.uk, farandwildliving.co.uk and kerryharding.co.uk for further information.
Blue Hills to Follow the Sea and Strata II