Soon it would be too hot

Soon it would be too hot

Gabriel Hartley and Reina Sugihara discuss the painters' studio and weather
Gabriel Hartley, untitled 2023, pigment on Polaroid, 8.5 x 11.8 cm

Gabriel Hartley’s recent painting show “Mosslight” at Hagiwara Projects (August 26–September 23) ended with Gabriel, painter Reina Sugihara, and I asking the question: what does it mean to paint. We’ve all called London home at some point. While Gabriel and Reina now have studios in different parts of Tokyo, thoughts of British weather and London sky remain vivid albeit different; doom-laden, hopeful, transformed. Gabriel’s paintings offer a different way of looking at or peeking through the iconography of each city at the end of a summer best described as impossibly hot. 1 The following is an edited version of that conversation looking back at Gabriel’s work including his painted polaroids offering a glimpse of his studio, as seen above behind pigment, and the paintings it produced.2

Stuart Munro Do you want to start by talking about your paintings?

Gabriel Hartley Yeah. So basically, we're going to talk about the paintings and then hopefully use these as a jumping board to talk about some issues to do with making painting and links between myself and Reina and our approach.

So these are all made here in Tokyo over the last year and have been made in my … well,  I moved studios this year to a residential kind of apartment with three tatami rooms. The first thing you see when you come in is this little Polaroid (on the wall), which is actually of my studio. It's like the studio window as you go in. And in a way, these paintings are about a reaction to the place I'm living in; where I am, what I'm looking at. I'm kind of very taken by the studio I'm in now. And it's a reaction to that in some ways, which you can see. So just in the painting, you can see these little marks of the tatami, because all these paintings are done flat on the floor, un-stretched and then I stretch them up in at the studio — they’re small — but then these later ones are stretched up here (in the gallery). I work out the cropping by paneling them to the wall and quite often taking a photograph, seeing how they work on an iPhone as an image. The first time I really see them though is when they come here.

SM Is it true that you work from behind as well?

GH Yeah. So this painting, where, see, these black and white marks, is all done in reverse from behind. Do you want me to stop a little bit?

Reina Sugihara No, it's okay. Go on.

GH Also, I talk fast anyway …

RS I mean, if you guys have any questions, if you miss what he said, I'm happy to interpret or translate what he says. So please, anything you don't know please catch my eye and I will respond to you guys with what he said in Japanese.

GH Where did we get to?

SM Well, when we were last talking — this is kind of part two of a conversation earlier this week — you talked about how photographs were kind of important in the work or had an importance, and obviously there's (a photograph) there (on the wall) and one where Yukari-san is standing, but they're understated. They're not really obvious.

GH Sure.

SM Images, photographs, the photographic image; how do they work with these paintings?

GH The paintings start from photographs I’ve taken. Then I sand back the image and paint on top of it. So it's almost like, even with the photograph, (I am) almost forgetting the image and remembering something about it. Because I always find a photograph doesn't really encapsulate that much. It encapsulates a small portion of what you're looking at or what you're feeling. Whereas in painting you kind of transcend that somehow. That’s what I love about painting. It’s that you can contradict yourself. You can paint quite a lot of different viewpoints of the same thing at the same time. So yeah they're the starting point. I mean, my relationship with photography goes through the whole of my practice from quite early on, in that sometimes I've been interested in a digital image and how painting relates to these. We're around them the whole time and we sort of start to interpret painting in the same way or we think we interpret painting through images, but actually the reality of it becomes far more important. So there's that. But they’ are often a way to get me going and just start painting.

SM So it's not necessarily about optics or, like, focal lens, but it's about something that's flat, that acts as jumping off point.

GH Yeah. I mean, they probably were more about a kind of optics, about a kind of backlit image and how painting responded and related to that.

SM Obviously there's a question of time involved as well, like period and duration, exposure and so on. But I read somewhere that you talked about the importance of slow observation — because obviously photographs are catching an instance, a sliver of a second — whether that was of relevance?

GH Yeah, definitely. I mean, the thing I want with painting is that it slows you down and takes you out of that everyday moment of consuming. I kind of want paintings to be things that change as you look at them, that change when you come back to them; this painting that felt very different than when I looked at it last week. The thing I love about painting is that it really does change the whole time, depending on your mood, light. All these things change everything about it.

RS How do you finish your painting?

GH Finish them?

SM Are they ever finished?

GH That's always the question, isn’t it. For me, it's almost like you've created this character and there's a point where you sort of meet something outside of yourself and then you sort of have to work out whether you get on.

RS I totally understand.

GH … or whether you need to get on. Sometimes you create something. It's like your first reaction. You want them to be something you like, but actually, maybe you don't need to get on. Maybe they are interesting in and of themselves.

RS That's like the moment you will be able to see your painting from the outside for the first time.

GH You have it. Interesting. Because Reina paints in the studio where she lives. Above it. Above the studio. And I was thinking how that's really hard because you're always ‘meeting'. They surprise you more in a way, like when you're going for a cup of tea.

RS I like waking up with my paintings. Every morning it changes.

GH It’s a very intense experience then, isn't it?

RS So finishing your painting is always tricky. You have no idea when your painting is done. That's a question that I wanted to ask you, because since your painting is really organic, it's like changing every day. It depends on the environment.

GH This one, I started two years ago at a point when I thought it might be finished for a long time.

RS But you didn't work on that painting for two years?

GH No. I put it aside and then pulled it back out. I find there are these moments, well, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts, whether you're pushing something and you think I need to do this, or whether you kind of just fiddle. Then something happens and you get surprised. Like you're almost not thinking and then that thing will just … like you will just start doing it and …

RS It is more like you are following …

GH You're following, exactly. Yeah. Because when you're making, it’s between listening and talking. Right. There's this fine balance.

SM Speaking as a non painter but a writer, writing is very, very similar. There are times when I can't deal with what I am writing anymore — I will put it over there and leave it for a month or more. Then go back and think, what was that all about? Or, re-engage with it. It’s at a point where it feels as if I'm looking for a chance to stop writing. That process of stopping and starting can be quite stressful.

RS When it's too close to you, you can't see.

SM You can’t. Sometimes it’s better to leave, let it just sit there and ruminate and exist in a sketchbook, on your computer, wherever. And then wait until you catch up with it.

GH Yeah, exactly.

SM A lot of the time you're spewing stuff subconsciously.

GH Definitely.

SM And then two years or a month later you realize, oh, that's what I was trying to say and then you re-engage with it …

GH … and sometimes you'll make another painting or you write something afterwards which maybe answers the question that you hadn't answered which was left over? And you quite often don't realize it's been left. You only realize that question is left once you've started doing other things.

SM So as painters, if you've ever had a paid commission, you have a time scale. How do you sort of get enough out of it to feel like you've accomplished something, but also meet the deadline? Time is of essence in that sense.

RS I never enjoyed the concept of deadlines. I always have a spot in my studios. Whenever somebody asks me when I am painting I just try to finish it on time. That's all I can do. How about you?

GH In terms of painting commissions, I don't do that many. I just try and have a lot going on in the studio. Maybe there is something that I would finish off. But I recently had a commission of tiles and I really enjoyed that it had a deadline.

SM That's a recent commission?

GH I enjoyed it because I had to sort of change myself and almost think in a very different way. And the whole process of making a (ceramic) tile requires you to be very decisive. Do the thing so it will get fired. You know what I mean? You've got to be very kind of pragmatic.

SM Can you just explain what the tile commission was?

GH That was a private commission for a very long wall piece in Portugal (made at the Viúva Lamego ceramics factory on the edge of Lisbon.) I've been over here working out a method for a year or so. I was going there to make very small pieces, working out a process that I could then make more afterwards which related to my paintings and the processes I had picked up before from making paintings. What I like about making stuff is that you can have one way of thinking, but then you can quickly change that way to another. There's a part of your brain that can just switch and be very pragmatic about things.

SM Presumably that workshop was one, two, three months long?

GH I had two months to make the piece.

SM Did you go there thinking you had an idea of what you were going to produce?

GH Not how it looked. I didn't know how it would look completely, but I knew the processes that I would use because I wanted that openness of how colours can change, how things change when they're fired. That’s part of ceramics which is exciting: things change as you fire them.

SM I guess the same could also be true of these because you mentioned you came back to this painting three weeks or months later and saw a completely different hue emerging.

GH Yeah. And the thing is, like the painting behind me, you don't quite know what's going to happen. (Returning is) a really brave decision. Or not. But a real decision. And the same with these paintings, where at the end there is this layer of thin, black ink, which hides, reveals or conceals what I've done before. But it's a little bit like applying glaze in that you're not quite sure how it will react with paint until the end and then have this moment of surprise.

SM You don't get to a point where the painting explodes though …

GH There are some where it’s like, oh no!

SM But they're recoverable, you can salvage something from them?

GH Some. Recently in the studio, I've had a really bad success rate. I made one painting with about 20 failures. I haven't been able to work past them. I've been trying to get that one hit but it's just not been working.

SM Is that because you're feeling things out as you go along?

GH Yeah. I'm trying to find something new, exactly.

SM So, like, I was trying to think of somebody, another artist, to bounce off from, not in terms of similarity but in terms of images and image-making. The painter Yukie Ishikawa came to mind for no other reason than her work is quite abstract, quite vivid. She's a painter who talks about what she calls ‘meta-photographic’ images — images of images. She works with advertisements and commercials from magazines and stuff. But she strips them down to their bare basic elements, then loads things back into them to a point where it's very difficult to know where things (ideas) are coming from. There’s a joy in her kind of discovery, discovering painting through found images. She finds things from her own making process. I wonder whether or not there was a process of doing that here, especially if you’re painting from behind with, say, a vivid pink, while on the front it’s dense, dark, and sombre. Do you think some of that process comes from moving from the UK to Japan? Is it geographic or more instinctive?

GH So there's definitely a part of this which is to do with moving to Japan. I think that's a process I've always had, but then I've approached it in very different ways. I think I really pinpointed that as something I was thinking about. I did a residency in Rome (British School at Rome, 2017/18) and was really struck by how many layers of the city you're always mingling with. You'll go into a church and it will be something from pre Roman and then Roman and then Renaissance and then there might be some really interesting contemporary graffiti and they're all mixed together. I did a lot of paintings after that which were about building up layers of paint and then sanding them back, physically sanding them back, finding or re-finding things. In a way, that process has carried on here but become a lot flatter. The big change in coming here though has to do with a certain light and darkness.

RS Light in Tokyo? Ah, a question …

You’re talking specifically about the production process?

RS That's right. Gabriel mentioned how his style has changed since moving to Tokyo from the work he originally made in London and how he since reflected on that, saying his work has become flatter and darker.

He lives in Tokyo?

RS Yes, living and working here in Tokyo …

GH … for 2 years.

Yukari Hagiwara It’s light in particular, right?

RS Yes, Gabriel mentioned the difference between the light here in Tokyo and the light in London, and how although London light is, in his opinion, much darker, in Tokyo it’s very dark making the picture much flatter.

RS Can you talk about the reasons why your paintings became slightly darker after the move to Tokyo?

GH So when I came here, I was very conscious not to bring any of my old materials with me. Another part of it was responding to materials and yet another reason was that I really got into how ink behaves, like there's no coincidence.

RS Let me just translate that quickly. So since moving here, he started using different materials, like black ink, and the darkness of the ink became more and more linked to Japan and Tokyo somehow.

GH And I think it was to do with the light. I really like, especially with the studio I'm in right now, painting in natural light. There’s a very different light that you get in a lot of Tokyo, apart from that kind of bright neon. I'm talking about the light a lot of the buildings have. We were previously talking about In Praise of Shadows (Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 essay on aesthetics), and even though that was from the 1930s it still resonates. In it he was talking about how this kind of light was fading from Japan and replaced by the kind of bright sheen of the west. But that light is still present. You find it even in a lot of small residential buildings. I think you still have this different way of embracing shadows.

RS Although London is very famous for …

GH … grey!

RS Do you consider Tokyo as not grey but a darker, robotic grey?

GH I find that you get lots of different shades, like cool shades of grey in the architecture. So you get more of these different shades of grey (50,000 shades!) but then the way (architecture) deals with shadows is very different.

RS Shadows?

GH Yeah, shadows. Not needing things to be constantly lit.

SM London has that image of being grey, because the weather is awful, it colours everything. But Tanizaki, for example, had a really hard life. His is a pretty dark life story. And I think Praise of Shadows was trying to wrestle with that the realization (that) life wasn't just about (one) colour and texture, but the darkness of living an impoverished, hard life throughout the country. Although saying that, London has Charles Dickens …

GH … and William Turner.

RS I always have an impression that the sunshine probably will come through after the grey. I call London’s grey a ‘potential’ grey, the potential that it will be sunny tomorrow. Does that make sense? But in Tokyo, the grey is just grey. The ‘concrete’ grey.

GH The ‘concrete’ grey. Yeah, that sort of set grey. I know you mean, but I see the darkness in a positive way. I don't see it as a negative. I see it as a different way of approaching the world. Because there's a really interesting bit in that essay where he talks about the difference between western toilets and Japanese toilets, where western toilets want white tiles and everything to be shiny and feel new. Whereas a Japanese toilet would traditionally be quite clean but made from wood. Dark wood. There might be one window at the top where you get natural light coming in. I quite like that. The toilet is quite a contemplative place. It’s quite nice to realize that and not clean it up. Not everything has to be shiny.

SM Severe! White ceramic tiles can be quite cold as much as they can be quite bright and clean. I guess texture and quality of feel and touch are super important.

GH He also talks about the paper being the kind of traditional paper. It absorbs light and ink, whereas the kind of western paper would be shiny and white. It would actually repel light.

RS To quickly translate, he is mentioning the differences between types of paper, where one might be already shiny and beautiful when you buy it, while the other Japanese kind absorbs light and colour, and this is being expressed with his paintings.

SM I also wanted to ask you a little bit about the role of comedy and whether you see anything comic in your work. Is there a comical element or aspect of playfulness with it?

GH I think so. I used to approach painting in a way where I'd want the humor to be more direct and you'd be able to look at something and understand what I mean. It would look kind of fun. Whereas, that's kind of gone away. But there is something, an energy to it, or a kind of approach to looking and making. I think it’s serious but maybe there is a different type of humor there..

SM Yeah, quite. It's not slapstick but is hidden in the misuse of materials and materiality.

GH Yeah, like these bits you can see, I’m quite happy for these to remain, like the bits of brushes the remain in there. There are bits of twig there too. Even the way the tatami is in there and in this one, there are lots of little offbits too. It's not a flat painting which for me takes you back to the studio.

SM One of the things that stayed with me after our first conversation was you talking about how a lot of the work you made away from Japan was actually quite physical and had a lot of texture to it. But as soon as you came here, it became very flat. And flat in every sense, not just in terms of colour, but also in terms of material. So you're dealing with surfaces and materiality in the same way.

GH I still think that once you get up to them, you can get involved in the surface, but just in a very different way. And just going back to London, for me, oil paint makes a lot of sense in London. Somehow. I think there's a reason why (Frank) Auerbach was so attracted to it. And those are London paintings because they are thick and claggy. It’s claggy old paint, not luxurious. Do you know what I mean? It's like old paint. Whereas maybe that idea doesn't make as much sense here. As a painter, I'm someone who sees the place you're in as a protagonist. To make that type of painting here would feel disingenuous somehow.

SM Do you think the work is more characterful in that sense?

GH Yeah.

SM There's always some sort of character you're imbuing into the work?

GH I'm always trying to meet someone. I feel like I've met a character. And then there's something interesting about cities where you feel like you sometimes tap into a history. I think painting sort of helps you do that. We were talking a bit about that with your paintings, Reina. For me, the photograph of something takes you from the process of making, back to reality. And when Reina is making, she … maybe you should talk about this, but I was thinking about the objects that you make and how when you’re painting you make an object you quite like the feel of..

RS Speaking about my painting, I always have a specific object or buy an object before I start a new series because that's, how can I say, a token or thing for me to get back to reality. And I always hold it in my hand or put it in my pocket.

SM Like a totem?

RS It's like the film Inception …

GH … and needing something to stop you from going too far into a dream world.

RS Whenever you are painting, it's easy to forget you actually exist. So you need some object to bring you back..

SM I asked both of you before the conversation, do you listen to music? And you (Gabriel) said definitely not. Maybe sometimes cricket, basically nothing. And then you (Reina) said you listen to everything.

RS Everything. Like the radio, YouTube.

SM Like white noise. Does that mean that it's the same thing?

RS It is the same.

SM It's a presence that you're aware of, but you're not focusing on a song or a lyric or whether it's coming from your laptop or from the speaker.

RS True. And also for me, it's really important for me to feel like I’m alone when making work. Whenever my studio is so loud and filled with a lot of music, YouTube and television, I feel more isolated. That makes me feel more concentrated on what I'm doing.

SM Taking that a bit further, it's really connected to you and the act of painting (where) the body is holding something, aware you're still here while painting while getting lost in the process. I think you had a show called “Splays” (at Brand New Gallery, Milan, in 2013), which was very bodily, or suggestive of the body at least. The presence of both of you as painters in the work is really important. Which maybe sounds obvious.

GH But it's one of those things. It's interesting to talk about how a studio works because a lot of it is just that, but it's also loads of boredom. There's so much boredom involved in not really knowing what you're doing and then trying to find these little moments where you might return to that bodily moment. How you tease yourself into those moments is kind of interesting. Being creative is part of it. It’s this sort of train tunnel you keep going down and keep following, just believing that you're heading somewhere but then there's another part of it which is caressing something and being very sensitive to these little moments that may happen and not being so headstrong.

SM Otherwise you'd be buried in your paintings all the time.

GH Or you just can't do it. You're not responding, you're not listening. You're not aware of the little things that you might have done or things that might be happening or something else outside of yourself that might be made.

SM Do you switch off …

GH Yeah, well, like holidays. I'll go and find those images. so there'll be moments where I'm not in the studio. I'll take lots of photographs, do lots of drawing, almost like research. And then in the studio, I like being in the studio a lot. I like the daily routine.

SM How about you, Reina? Is it important to not work as much as it is?

RS I don't know. I like being in the studio though. Even when I don't make anything. I just want to stay there. That place is, like, the only place that accepts me fully. So to me, it's important to go to my studio every day, just staying there, even if I'm just watching YouTube and Netflix.

SM To be present …

RS Exactly. To be present.

SM I don't know how big your studios are, but I can imagine they're kind of similar in size and scale.

GH This is pretty much the floor, like a little bit bigger, but pretty much the floor of the room I paint in. And there's another room next to it, which is almost the same size. It's like what is it, like a classic 4 or 5 tatami?

SM And have you ever tried to sort of work outside of it. Say, creep up the walls, out the front door?

GH Pretty much no. But, I have to try a little bit.

SM I'm currently reading “Tomb of Sand” by Geetanjali Shree, an Indian writer and in it she talks of how psychologists say the aspect of human nature comes forth the moment we enter a room for the first time or we enter a party or an event. And that is the strongest influence in shaping our personality and our future selves. Just the act of passing through a door … you have a window, so there's an aperture as well … that sense of being able to move through a space visually. Do you feel like you’re limitless within your tiny little studio, or do you, regardless of its size, ever feel limited by the sort of work you could make?

GH The total answer would be that, financially, there are limitations. If I had limitless finances, there are projects I could do and I would like to do if there was a bigger budget. The tile commission was really open. It was really nice having this budget behind me which meant I could do these things. But then in the studio I don't think about it.

SM That project was multiples of something similar?

GH No, they're all individual tiles.

SM All different dimensions?

GH They're all the same dimension, but they’re made up like one big piece.

SM So you are doing the same with your paintings. Like, your one painting, the maximum size of which is what's on the wall behind you …

GH Yeah. I don't feel limited, I feel free. And it's a smaller studio than I've had before. I love that. It's kind of the happiest studio I've been in, really, in a lot of ways.

SM That makes sense.

GH Does anyone want to ask some questions?

Do you want these to come across as tatami works or you don't really care?

GH No, I love tatami! Tatami daisuki!

RS So is it important for you to tell people that these marks are actually made by tatami?

GH I see them as almost, like, buildings.

SMlike a map?

GH Yeah. Or like raindrops … for me tatami became another register where they would just exist. When you first see them, you probably don't read them straight away as tatami. They could be from a tatami mat. They feel more like small, chisai, brush marks.

RS Do you want people to notice it's actually tatami work?

GH I don't need that. I don't need that.

RS Any other questions?

Maybe about the medium that you are using, using pigment with binder? Can you tell me more about that?

GH So when I first moved here, my studio was right next to this shop called Pigment and I was amazed by these bottles of natural pigment. So, the process is natural pigment used with a sort of animal skin glue, sometimes Gum Arabic. Basically watercolour. And then on top, often ink.

RS It's pretty much like a Japanese tradition.

GH Yeah, they're quite traditional paintings in a certain way. And then the cotton they’re painted on is this very thin cotton. Meaning that I can paint from behind and (the paint) seeps through.

SM This is a shift that you made recently?

GH A shift since moving here, yeah. I was using ink a lot beforehand, but the actual use of pigment was a shift made here.

Do you buy cotton from Yuzawaya?

GH No, it's from Pigment. Tenjiku cotton!

RS Originally, Gabriel's first studio after moving here was in Tennozu, nearby a pigment store called Pigment, which was the start of this series. The cotton is used for things like noren curtains.

YH When you first saw the tenjiku cotton you found out how to use it instead of canvas?

GH Yes. I'd been making lots of drawings where I'd been using the back of the image. The actual back of the paper was the thing I'd show. When I found the cotton, I was like, this is amazing, because it was strong. It's quite fun when you find a thin material like that and you see straight through it but you can’t see the crossbars and everything. It was the first time I found a cotton that actually has the exact same properties as the paper that I was using. The whole process had caught up with that, in a way.

Do you live and work in the same place?

GH No, they’re different from each other but close. Maybe 5 minutes by bike.

Working every day, from morning to night?

GH I mostly work weekdays and rest on weekends.

SM So these books here (two self-published volumes from 2021 of work made in collaboration with Imlabor, an artist collective that ran a project space ran from 2020 to 2022 in Ueno), which were like one-offs, postcards, paintings of postcards or painting on postcards and images of bits of photographs. These were made over how long a period?

GH The postcards I started doing like 20 years ago, actually. But then most of these were also printed out photographs. It was actually started a lot of these began during lockdown.

SM It was quite recent.

GH Yeah, lots of them. I printed out all my iPhone photos. I realized I've been taking photographs of …

RS … but you've been doing this series for over 15 years.

GH I started the postcards quite a few years ago, yeah. But the actual printed photographs started from lockdown. I've always had this relationship with a postcard or small image that I'll change, mimic.

SM And the show at imlabor was presented both in portrait and landscape. So that's been replicated.

GH We had two TV screens outside; one landscape, one portrait, showing those images consequentially.

SM Was that just practical?

RS Practical and that kind of showed Gabriel’s inspirations.

GH And the space had a kind of window out onto the street. It was a nice place where people could hang out …

RS And that video played 24/7, non-stop.

GH This was Reina's old space imlabor.

SM How was imlabor involved?

RS This book is a collection of postcards by Gabriel, which he has been working on for the past 15 years. We put them all together in a space in Ueno called imlabor. This is the book that was published there.

What were your first impressions of Gabriel's work?

RS I first saw his solo exhibition at London’s Seventeen Gallery, just at the time of the pandemic in 2020.

GH Yeah it cut-off midway through because of the pandemic.

RS I first saw him there, and at that time I had the impression Gabriel was doing more sculpting and the paintings were more uneven, so both looked very organic and completely different from what I saw in the pictures.

SM Maybe the first time I saw your work was at the postcard show at imlabor.

What brought you to Japan?

GH My wife did, but we really needed a change of surroundings after the lockdown

RS Any more questions?

You have talked about this briefly but I was interested in the reason why you started to apply paint on the back? Was it inspired by the cotton you found here or you did it before?

GH Yes. All the drawings I make on site are done on very thin paper where the painting, the drawing, bleeds through and what I really like is that thing of losing a memory, or how it sort of blurs an image and you have to kind of remember what it was. So there'll be something from the front and sometimes from the back as well. The cotton really responded to that. But then also, there is this thing back here (pointing at the wall) that everything since moving here almost feels as if you have to shift a lot and things go back-to-front. So there's maybe partly to do with it as well.

SM Were you doing much of that before in London?

GH Nothing back to front like that.

SM So literally, as soon as you came here.

GH Exactly, It’s slightly to do with materials, slightly to do with where you are I suppose.

How long do your paintings usually take?

GH Some take 2 or 3 years and others can take a month or a month and a half. It really depends.

Do you work on many paintings at a time?

GH Yes.

You mentioned characters that you look for in your work. Can you elaborate a little bit?

GH It's not an actual character so much, more that you have this feeling of meeting something that's sort of outside of yourself. It's not that you are just reflecting yourself. I always think every kind of art is about holding up a mirror. Either you're holding a mirror to society, to yourself, or you're creating a mirror for people to reflect upon themselves. So that's what I'm asking, whether it's almost like you've held this mirror, created something outside of yourself, and you’re left to work out who they are. It's not necessarily putting words to who that person is: This person's really funny; This person isn’t and so on. There'll be a kind of feeling, like you have met something, that it's something you kind of encounter or bump into. The hard bit is trying not to push too much of yourself into that I suppose. You don't want to always think, no, you should be more like this. You have to listen to who or what that thing is.

SM Paintings are like a handshake, like a meeting point?

GH It’s a bit of that quote you mentioned about walking into a room for the first time.

SM You get to a point where you kind of know, but don't need to know too much, and then live with that. And then you present it. A point where you mutually agree. Like, okay, I have a sense of what you might be like. I can live with that.

GH Yeah, exactly. Or, it's like actually meeting someone. There are some people you meet and straight up you're like, oh, yeah, I love you. We're going to be best friends but then end up hating them months later. Sometimes you meet someone you're like, I'm not sure. But then months later, you’re best buds.

SM It’s fluid. Do you ever or would you ever imagine taking these paintings in a month and work into them again?

GH Once I've shown them, no. That's like a decision of completion.

SM You are drawing a line.

GH Saying that, I have gone back to one painting, but only once.

SM With that, unless there are any more questions maybe we should draw a line and just wrap things up.

GH Yes, thank you so much. Thank you so much to S and Reina for your help with the talk. Thank you.

Quick question, which do you feel more happy with, painting in London or Tokyo?

GH Happy?

RS Manzoku … (satisfied)

GH In London paintings look brighter and more colourful, whereas these paintings look darker. I think in terms of actual happiness, I feel happier here in some ways. In terms of satisfaction, I think paintings have progressed.

Depends on the place or environment?

GH I think your environment, your place. I feel like I'm always responding to that and that feels like a big character. That feels like a big part of a character.

I mean, I am Japanese and you say the Japanese image is so dark … I'm not angry (laughs)

GH (laughs) I don’t mind you being angry.

SM Maybe ‘dark’ is the wrong word.

RS It's not bad, not dark but maybe a little colder?

Is it also to do with the image of Japanese culture, system, quality, and so on. Doesn't it sound a bit dark?

RS I don't think it's a bad image, but feels like a psychological darkness. England is also famous for its gray, but its said that the Japanese gray is different. In Britain, grey is associated with, say, Dickens or Turner, but in Japan the impression is like concrete, a gray where nothing changes, especially since you were the first one there at the Tennozu studio. It's a line, you know … The Pigment store there, where we first met, is where this style came into being, but from his point of view he’s very satisfied with its response to Tokyo.

YH Do you think it’s even related to humidity?

GH Some paintings, yes. I've been making a lot of paintings recently, which are actually a kind of white. It's almost like trying to capture this heat that you get here, which is just like a white.

RS It changes heat quickly.

GH Yeah. A lot of paintings before as well, were almost responding to weather. That's kind of always slightly in there … especially with this summer. There are those days where it’s so hot. How can you paint something really hot without without using orange and yellow? Do you know what I mean? How can you actually transmit that feeling of, like, melting …

SMweight! Maybe that’s London ‘grey’ where weight and weather are represented as something oppressive.

RS I still feel London ‘grey’ brings a sense of hope, as if tomorrow is going to be sunny.

GH Weather was always something you could talk about, and now it's so weighted, isn't it? Because this is just so strange. It just feels like … such a heavy topic.

SM It's not just weather.

GH It's not just weather.

SM One things that came to mind was The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard and how everything is wet and green but super hot at the same time, and the way he writes about extreme heat. But, in terms of these colours, they're not just burning white hot colours with reds or oranges, they are swampy, humid, sticky.

GH Yeah, exactly. That's another character you meet. Definitely something that comes from these paintings. I suppose it is a part of painting where your fears are being realized. But sometimes you just have to run with them.


A quick thank you to Gabriel and Reina for talking so openly about their work, to Yukari Hagiwara of Hagiwara Projects for hosting the talk, to Schmatz who generously supplied the show with beer and to everyone else who came and listened.


“Soon it would be too hot.” The opening line from J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, first published in 1962.


Cover image: Gabriel Hartley, untitled 2023, pigment on Polaroid, 8.5 x 11.8 cm

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