The gathering momentum in Garden’s work since 1990 has been unmistakable. The considered Nudes, which defined space as much as they described parts of the body, and the quiet, distinctive still lifes of 1990-95 were forerunners of the paintings to come. Her 1995 series A Thin Disguise, comprising 22 self-portraits in different guises, was seemingly a limbering up exercise in preparation for the 1996 series Sisters of Mercy and those beyond. These works heralded a new direction for Garden as she stepped from reflection to action, movement and drama.
She has continued to focus mainly on portraiture using herself as subject. The genesis of her paintings lies in her family history, which is steeped in stories of war, emigration and loss. Of Polish and Greek descent (both parents were war refugees), Garden is a first-generation New Zealander who feels keenly the loss of both her paternal and maternal cultures. She paints primarily for herself as she explores with increasing intensity circumstances from the past.
Garden has a singular vision and paints mostly with a restrained palette, exploring themes of gender issues, domesticity, the passage of time and conflict. She rarely uses paint expressively and maintains a flat surface. Always at the heart of her work lies her fascination with the formal elements of painting, and she treats the subject of a still life painting much as she would a portrait. Garden’s paintings tend to be interior dramas with little depth of context beyond the figures depicted. Occasionally series are set in a landscape, such as Contra-indications (1999) and Any Given Day (2002), recalling the freedom and hope of childhood; or with a backdrop of buildings, such as Auckland – A Work of Fiction (2001), reflecting on her move to Auckland in 1981 and Office Wives (1997). The buildings and backdrop panels of shorthand script in the latter offer a hint of the bold patterning that would become one of Garden’s trademarks after 2001.
In 2000, she revisited still life painting in Here, After, about memory and preservation and, in 2003, she immersed herself in books about the British artists of 1910-1939, falling for the work of abstractionist painter, Ben Nicholson. In the pivotal series Love Letters later that year, she began experimenting with a split plane and leaving pencil ‘history’ marks unpainted, and drew on her still life painting to introduce elements of abstraction, including a ‘frame within a frame’, to her compositions. In Dressergirls (2005) the ‘frame’ was given as a non-reflective mirror to isolate the portrait itself.
Working for the first time with the harshness of down-lighting and its stronger contrasts between light and shadow, Garden sought to create ‘unhindered, confrontational’ portraits in her 2006 series Arabesques. However, Garden changed tack when, deciding to include an ambiguous reference to her genealogy, she isolated a detail of fleur-de-lis wallpaper from a 1930s photograph of her father and began using it as a backdrop to the works. The strong pattern, which symbolised the movement of family and friends through her life, competed with the subject’s patterned clothing and rendered the portraits less easily visible.
This reversal to the ‘cluttered and decorative’, despite its connotations of ‘women’s painting’, brought out the works’ inherent strength.
With a consistent body of work to her name, endless notes waiting in her workbooks and a seemingly intensifying work habit, Garden’s steady commitment to her art practice suggests that she is only just hitting her stride.
Elizabeth Caughey – Editor
Contemporary New Zealand Art 5