"Waves (for D)" by Paul Hardy

Light and pathos in Paul Hardy’s paintings

The artist’s new exhibition Study for Ways to Live opens this week.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Paul Hardy’s exhibition at the Centre CLARK is the light. Entitled Study for Ways to Live, Hardy’s exhibit prominently features big ceiling panels that he’s installed to project an eerie gradient of pink and blue onto his largely abstract paintings. The light may be the colour of a sunset but it feels like it’s coming at you. UV on a mission. I don’t know how he achieved such aggression with pastels, but there it is.

Hardy is showing six works. There’s a big conspicuous space on one wall where you could hang a seventh painting, but instead the space opens up with this discomfiting absence. I felt, quite happily, queasy and confused.

Hardy has crafted this experience for us: “it’s rather psychedelic and it’s kind of beautiful but tense.

Three of the paintings he’s presenting at the CLARK are big graphite and pigment works on gessoed plywood boards. These, “Waves (for D)”, “Waves (for I)” and “Waves (for A)” are, like most of his work, fairly abstract, but in this case have pictorial connotations with water or stratified layers of earth. His process in creating these was partly “ritualistic, a way of marking time.” Hardy is generally guarded about providing too much information with which to interpret his work, but will say that he was going through a difficult period – a time in which going into the studio to “think about colour and space and structure” didn’t make the same sense as it might normally. In creating these big graphite pieces, there was “something diaristic…and extremely meditative.”

He points out that these paintings, all 86 by 48 inches, are “kind of the size of a body.” As soon as you think of them this way they loom over you like coffins — big coffins for door-sized humans, or at least hulking square-shouldered harbingers of something very menacing indeed. Though there’s the thing about any kind of psychedelic experience: its subjectivity. I’m sure there’s some well-adjusted weirdo out there who will just see the transience of waves, the passing of time, of sand. Dust to dust. But these “Waves” do hit you in the gut. That’s the magic of painting, the wholly unphotographable aspect: that you can be knocked sideways by the presence of a canvas or a board.

Take a look at the photograph of a sculpture and you’re totally aware that you’re seeing a facsimile, but for some reason when we see the documentation of a painting we assume we’re getting a close approximation to the thing itself. Then you look at paintings like Hardy’s face to face, in particular in this highly installation-specific context, suffused in disorienting hues, and wham, are reminded of why seeing art in person is meaningful.

While describing his inspirations — diverse cultural sources and artists from Caspar David Friedrich to James Turrell in reference to his ceiling installation alone, and more broadly certain “pathos laden” German painters such as Kai Althoff and Rosemarie Trockel — Hardy talks about moving past “riffing on what came before,” asking himself instead, “What kind of agency can abstraction have and how can it function in the service of one’s life?” Painting in particular can get so wrapped up in self-consciously painterly debates and painterly references that it feels as though this is exactly the spirit of self-examination ultimately needed to escape the art-historical echo chamber — to resonate with a knowing crowd, but to prioritize the capacity to simply move somebody.

Hardy wants to approach painting with a “sensitivity to how things feel.” Maybe at first that sounds a little dopey, but don’t we desperately value this kind of emotional astuteness in our personal lives?

Seeing Hardy’s paintings is private and intuitive, but the affective qualities of the paintings and the space seem to stem from his slow and laborious methods. It’s not at all surprising to hear him unabashedly admit to a methodical and sometimes years-long process. Entering Study for Ways to Live is a lot like entering a room full of strangers. You may not yet know them, but they are no less fully formed, no less full of personality. ■

Study for Ways to Live opens is at the Centre CLARK (5455 de Gaspé #114) Sept. 6-Oct. 12, vernissage Sept. 6, 8 p.m., free