Art & Photography

Porous Boundaries

Exploring gravity, time, and entropy in Alexis Harding’s abstract paintings

All photography Thomas Martin

“I’m excited by the conditions around making something,” artist Alexis Harding tells me over video from his studio in Purfleet-on-Thames; where freight liners pass throughout the day, their containers stacked up in grids; where the Thames river meets the North Sea. “The paintings end up on the wall after being in drying racks, or lent for months at different angles. I put my arm into them and lance the paint, turn them upside down, squeeze, twist or shake them,” he explains. “I’ve come back to the studio after a day and found whole paintings have slid to the floor. The slow-drying time of oil paint, combined with irrational moments where they’re interrupted, or gravity dislodges them, can be addictive. It’s something to do with not wanting them to be fixed, not wanting them to end. It might be a fantasy of mine, but long after paintings are on a wall, they continue to leak, move and include the viewer.”

The act of painting, the physicality of it, and the choreography that’s integral to it – particularly for Harding, as he coaxes, turns and leans each work, over an extended period of time – overlaps with the residue, or legacy, of the associations and context of when, how, and why each work is made. “I’m always trying to create space to show that the work isn’t just illustrative of a process. The paintings cling to associations with the world. They’re abstract paintings that are aiming to include the world, rather than shun it and be cold, process-driven things.”

Harding often starts from geometry, two lines crossing each other, or a grid, and using the tradition of abstraction he’ll “attempt to corrupt it, and prove that boundaries are porous”. “It’s always been an attempt to make a body of work that begins in a similar way, but leaps off in many different directions,” he tells me. “A lot of the early grids seem a bit unsettled; they were about unifying a surface and disrupting or breaking it. There was a belief that the fracture of the painting in one instance could reflect on many different ideas, such as the action of the heart going around the body, while another might be to do with looking at neon lights from above a city.”

Working with each painting is key to Harding’s practice: “They say when they are ready to be moved.” He mixes paint relying on instinct rather than measurement – “It’s quite an advantage that oil paint is something I don’t understand… I mix materials anticipating how they will behave in time: One is thin and smooth like velvet, while another is thick and takes days to move” – and sees each work as being “alive, in a way”. “They’re a series of mistakes, errors, contingencies, incidents, in a way – full of haphazard accidents and humour,” he explains.

These incidents, or accidents, are part of Harding’s choreography, and a core element of how he embraces the principle of painting being time-based: “The question of where to stop or start, this sense of formalism, is something I’m always battling with. There are moments where you can stop the slippage, breaking, blending or sliding; where the compositional gestures indicate where the painting’s movement has begun and would have continued to travel. And the skin of the paint, the way it wrinkles, seems to prove or embrace a kind of figuration. It has a relationship to the body, and ageing.”

Harding’s Temporary Wet Paintings are a way of freeing up his approach. “You set the painting up, it goes vertical, and you walk away – it’s exhilarating.” Rather than interacting with the paint, as it slides and stands and settles, he installs the works in galleries or alternative spaces, and leaves them to rupture. The paint often falls away from the support, creating a second piece on the floor, which reflects moments that have passed in the life of the work. “They’re explicit in allowing painting to go to its full entropic death,” Harding notes. “In a way, they contradict my studio work, where things can be stopped or controlled. They free that up, shun my habits and liberate me from the formalism I seem tied to in the making of the work. I’m learning not to get in the way so much.”

Photography Thomas Martin

This article is taken from Port issue 28. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here