THE SHIFT IS ON
by Sarra Scherb
Volume 1, March 2014 – WEAVE Magazine
It’s futile to try and sum up Robert Hardgrave’s body of work in one sentence.
Go ahead, give it a shot. Peruse twenty years of past series, current experiments, and his Flickr feed. Where do you begin? The sumi-e-esqe ink monochromes? The dense, Piranesi-like conglomerates? The trompe-l’oil offspring of 1990s-era computer art and Dalí?
Each time you seem to have a sense of Hardgrave’s methods and materials (acrylic and watercolor on canvas? Yes. Ink on paper? Check. Needlepoint on fabric? Oui. Cloth on metal armature? Uh huh.) another series emerges from his bag of tricks that blows your theory to bits. The soft-focus, candy-colored, abstract pastels. Toner transfers on Tyvek polyethelene. The dizzying compositions that are most closely related to a page out of Where’s Waldo?
I was once told that we only come up with one or two great ideas and the rest is filler.
After I heard that, my goal was to go beyond these expectations. I hope to work through as many ‘styles’ as possible throughout my career, as they develop through the needs of the work.
Dear ol’ Dad | 79″ x 110″ | Acrylic on canvas | 2011
A chameleonic virtuoso, the Seattle-based Hardgrave makes these 180-degree shifts in tone look easy. A self-described improvisational artist, he says that there is never an overall plan or process for his works.
“Improvisation, for me, is setting up my workflow so anything can happen.”
Don’t mistake “improvisation” for randomness, or lack of technique: even if it appears that he might flit from style to style, and technique to technique, he is executing each one masterfully. Hardgrave is admired by many fellow artists (and surely envied) for his constant flow of ideas for new techniques and styles.
Black Olive – 24″ x 18″ – Collage on paper
But lest we think that it’s all fun and games in the studio, Hardgrave has a word of warning. “It’s not an easy road to take, requiring many years of practice to even be a decent artist…Strong support—along with a healthy community—is key.”
Improvisation and a willingness to trust his instincts are also outlooks that have helped him get past roadblocks. His early style used illustrative, soft-bodied forms that combined a graffiti aesthetic with the swirls and coils of Chinese scroll paintings. The style proved popular, landing him commissions, exhibits, and glowing magazine profiles. “At the time it seemed I needed to stay with a technique to keep money in my pocket,” Hardgrave remembers. “But when that money dried up with the economy, it enabled me to not care what came out.” Since then, a strong sense of the experimental has allowed him to broaden his stylistic horizon, and increase his output.
Everything evolves in its own way. I just don’t know until I get into the work.
Everything requires a solution that fits the circumstance.
I just try to find it naturally without forcing my will too much.
These days, the staccato clamor of a sewing machine issues from Hardgrave’s studio, having recently replaced the quieter sound of brush on canvas. The artist’s father maintained a sporadic sewing practice during his life, and Hardgrave sees his recent focus on fiber arts as a way of connecting to his father’s memory. Textiles creep into his works everywhere; manifesting as three dimensional quilted sculptures, and empty suit forms that swing from hangers. Collages on paper have stitched thread standing in for drawn outlines.
Oblique | 14″ x 11″ | Ink, collage and thread on paper
But, like a searchlight moving across the ground, Hardgrave’s interests are constantly evolving, shifting and refocusing. Weeks ago, his Flickr feed was filled with sewn creations like Amish quilts gone mutated and amok. Today, it’s dominated with scratchy, minimalist, monochromes achieved by Xerox transfer. Hardgrave’s enthusiasm for creation is palpable, radiating through his experiments and process photos.
“I am still early in my career. Who knows what I will become interested in later on? I can see how many ways I can push it and it’s exciting. Every day in the studio is a thrill.”
Robert Hardgrave is represented by Cullom Gallery: cullomgallery.com
Contact the artist at roberthardgrave.com
Image at top: “Pele” – About 4′ x 3′ – Acrylic and thread on burlap – 2013
Article written exclusively for and published by WEAVE Magazine, Volume 1, March 2014.