Harmony of Opposites

Kohn Pedersen Fox Gallery New York 1991

Catalogue text by Dolores Le Fanu


The overwhelming energy and physicality of Vanda Harvey’s paintings produce an immediate impact on the viewer. To this extent the paintings are emotional rather than intellectual:

‘It is the experience of looking that I am interested in’.

Yet her paintings are rigorous constructions and space is a major concern. There is a strong affinity in her work with the abstract sculpture of David Smith and Anthony Caro, which has similar concerns with form and space. She looks back to old masters like Rubens, Velazquez and Turner for compositional construction and suggestion of space:

‘The construction of space is very important to me. I am trying to do something that opens the space up; I am trying to come towards the space that goes beyond the canvas, which in a way totally defies the whole notion of surface –the two-dimensional surface, abstract painting
as object’.

Sculpture is central to the British artistic tradition, especially in the twentieth century. Harvey is attracted by the physical presence of sculpture and the notion of balance which is essential in sculpture:

‘I often think the paintings could be built. You look at the compositional elements and see that you could construct them in space’.

Her chief medium, however, is oil painting and her fundamental concerns is in constructing space through colour and gesture. In painting she is as much influenced by the harmony and balance of Matisse’s work as by de Kooning:

‘De Kooning for directness and sense of paint, the physicality of paint and the fact that paint itself can convey emotion’.

The ground colour is the starting point in the construction of a painting. It becomes space and the other colours that are brought on establish a dialogue with it. Yet this ground colour provides an emotional response, evoking mood, sensation, sensuality, directness.

‘The acidic green in ‘Second Nature’ is the whole pitch of the painting. Then the struggle is to see how one can orchestrate within that. I am working towards a balance of opposites. The ground colour becomes a marker, so the greys in ‘Second Nature’ are on one side of the acidic green and the black are at the other end of the scale. That is the fascination: to work with the extremes on a formal level’.

The dichotomy in Harvey’s work, which on the one hand evokes a wider space and on the other has a great physicality and assertiveness, is expressed in a harmony of opposites. It is a physical confrontation and the emotion and the structure have been brought together at some point ‘which becomes the essence of the painting’.

The black mark, Harvey’s calligraphic signature, is one of the elements that hold the character of the painting and will be the last to go on. Thus both the beginning - the ground colour and the end of the painting process - the black mark, are strong, irrevocable statements:

‘It is always a very tense moment when the black goes down. But I like that commitment’.

Although often the blacks are adjusted, the first black statement is an almost instinctive expressive mark, albeit strongly controlled. The scale and nature of this mark evokes its human quality, its link with the real:

‘The fact that this big, black mark has been made by human arm and hand is something that prevents the work from being conceptual’.

Harvey is influenced by nature, by her own environment but her work is non-objective, despite the precise titles which define the paintings on a more emotional level without in any way explaining them. The marks, the colour, evoke the mood suggested in the title but even then there is room for ambiguity:

‘I don’t get on well with the idea of untitled paintings. I like the paintings to have an identity. The titles are also there to be evocative, a touchstone for the viewer The painting named ‘Camelot’ evokes chivalry – the purity of the pink and assertiveness of the black. A title can amuse you as well; it can give an essence. In the same way ‘Spanish City’ would evoke for me an intense emotional atmosphere – the red and black, that absolute directness. One is influenced by what one reads, by Lorca…’

The titles of Harvey’s paintings often evoke foreign lands or reflect the wanderlust which she finds liberating and an endless source of inspiration to draw on:

‘Travel is not just a physical thing; it is the travelling of the mind which is important’.

She extracts from these places their essence, the different elements, both physical and emotional, which confirm her sensibilities and interests. So New York might suggest notions of scale and elegance which fit perfectly with her own interest in balance and counterbalance in painting. Walking around the Forbidden City in Beijing, it was an absolute sense of strength and refinement which produced the greatest impact.

Harvey’s journey to China has had a profound effect on her work as it confirmed ideas and opened up a new exciting up new exciting horizon. She was overwhelmed by traditional Chinese art, by the space within Chinese landscape and by the directness of calligraphic art:

‘I was using black as gesture before I went to China. When I travelled to China it confirmed my suspicions of what had started to happen in my work’.

The space in Chinese landscape painting is not bound by Western notions of perspective. Nor is it bound by any direct relation to reality and this was the attraction for Harvey: space that the painter can organise, creating an order within that artificial space.

Harvey has always worked in series, always working on at least three paintings at a time and most recently working on as many as eighteen. Ideas work across paintings as much as within an individual painting, yet the finished paintings stand by themselves with their own personality:

‘What has happened over the latest series of paintings is that you create your own language; within that language you develop a vocabulary of marks that you can construct with. They become your tools’.

The present group of paintings continues to a certain extent the compositional developments and the graphic language that we saw in the oils and prints of the late eighties but the strongly textured backgrounds of ‘Camelot’ and ‘Spanish City’ and the uncompromising strength of ‘Night Moves’ and ‘Ocean Apart’ mark a definite development in Harvey’s work and may well be a new point of departure.


Dolores Le Fanu
February 1991