Gabriel Hartley’s Trousers (2011) is a monumental standing sculpture made from paper, resin and fibreglass. A crumpled cylinder painted in seven sections of different earthy tones that folds back on itself at its apex – it is formally compelling while also appearing purposefully absurd – like circus clothing imagined by John Chamberlain for a melancholy stilts wearer. One reviewer found enough knowingness and comedy in Hartley’s sculpture to praise it for its ‘parodic levity’. Hartley – who left the Royal Academy Schools in 2008 – finds jokey readings of his work problematic, although he doesn’t resist them. He speaks admiringly of the humour in Paul Klee’s work as something that is just there in being human and creative, and that will out in good work, without the need for any posing.
Hartley’s method, however, is far from ingenuous. It operates largely through strategies of display and concealment, as evidenced in his elegantly improvised paintings. These appear at first to sit squarely within the tradition of informal abstraction, but Hartley obscures matters by introducing process when his compositional searchings are complete. Carefully applying spraypaint over the finished oil as a final layer – which he likens to putting on makeup – he creates a softened, flattening impression, as if the painting were being viewed in some sourceless, raking light.
Speaking of these paintings, Hartley states, “The forms are continually melded, erased and worked over, yet they seek to evade any sense of incertitude or struggle but rather create a sense of mischief and play.” As in his sculptures, complex motivations are combined to fuel work that is both subtle and vigorous.
This article was originally published in the March 2013 issue.