24 Questions for Painter of Lady-Filled Microcosms Hilary Harkness

24 Questions for Painter of Lady-Filled Microcosms Hilary Harkness
Hilary Harkness at the opening of her FLAG Art Foundation exhibition, next to her painting "Red Sky in the Morning" (2010-11)
(Photo: Paul Porter/BFAnyc.com)

Name: Hilary Harkness

Age: 41


Occupation: Artist

City/Neighborhood: Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

This exhibition at the FLAG Art Foundation presents your military paintings, which depict intricate panopticons, cells, mess halls, and machine rooms populated exclusively by women. Do you think these images will mean something different to future generations now that women are permitted to fight in direct combat?

Even if the military bans men and fills every position with a lesbian, I suspect these paintings will keep their joie de vivre. I’m not intending to make commentary on gender roles because they are nothing more than kitschy fun in my own all-girl household. The reality of women in uniform validates that we are virile and capable of representing the best of both sexes. Painting all-female environments enables me to explore universals (such as power struggles, chains of command, and the sheer exertion of will and desire) without the distraction of gender biases. 

In Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Looking at War,” she writes that “the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is almost as keen as the desire for one that show bodies naked.” In what way are your military paintings confronting our fantasies about power and violence? What can artists contribute to our understanding of war?

Painting is a way for me to explore what life is like outside of everyday moral constraints. When you look into my paintings at the compartmentalized, teeming microcosms, the characters have no idea their heroism (or hedonism) is being observed. Going to war on a battleship is an irrevocable journey away from your moral context – they’re historically are little societies where you can forget outside rules and do things that were forbidden back home because you think nobody is watching. The social mores about what to do with your body just fall by the wayside because people need each other to stay alive, and there aren’t many options. It would be easy to lose your mind and go morally adrift.

In war, rules don’t exist and everything is at stake. Making or looking at art is a safe way to consider what life might be like in those circumstances.

Before you were an artist, you studied biochemistry at the University of California-Berkeley and worked as a professional violinist. How do those experiences inform your art-making?

They resonate in that music and chemistry are arrays of intricately interlocking ideas, and I get that same sort of feeling when I’m drawing complicated three-dimensional spaces that interact with whatever narrative ideas I have in mind.

Youve taken dramatic steps to cure creative blocks, like when you visited a 19th-century hydraulic mine to determine the correct color palette for your own mine painting or flew to a beach in Kauai to finish a painting of the South Pacific. For images as surreal as yours, why does this kind of verisimilitude matter?

The more abstract – or cartoony - a depiction is, the more specific it has to be to ring true. For example, when animated film director Hayao Miyazaki was making Spirited Away, he sent his dragon-animation team to a market to study how live eels wriggle.

As an artist, you might have to go to further extremes than you like to get something right, so it’s best not to waste time struggling and just do what it takes in the first place.

What project are you working on now?

I’m painting the HMS Prince of Wales just after an attack in the Pacific at an ungodly hour in the morning. Another painting in progress is a large beach scene called “Sexologists of the Galapagos.”

What’s the last show that you saw?

“Matisse: In Search of True Painting.”

What’s the last show that surprised you? Why?

When I was in Paris last fall, I saw a show that included still lives of flowers by Renoir that looked fantastic. It’s taken me many years to appreciate certain artists, such as Corot whom I came to appreciate at age 28, Cezanne (age 31), and Turner (age 34), and I was surprised by those awakenings because I originally found their work to be irritating. These breakthroughs led me to half-jokingly think that sooner or later I’ll come around to liking just about all art, with work by Renoir being the last in line. That I’ve come around to Renoir this early in life makes me a bit paranoid.

Describe a typical day in your life as an artist.

I work at home so I can slide out of bed and paint in my pajamas, usually with a mug of tea or coffee. My cat Harriet keeps me company.  If I’m drawing, I keep things quiet, but if I’m painting I’ll listen to podcasts, especially interviews with authors.

What’s the most indispensable item in your studio?

My Staedtler precision rulers.

Where are you finding ideas for your work these days?

Some of my best ideas have come to me while I’m attending interdisciplinary conferences that include scientists.

Do you collect anything?

I’m interested in drawings made by video and performance artists.

What’s the last artwork you purchased?

Six gouaches by Kalup Linzy.

What’s the first artwork you ever sold?

It was a drawing of an ornery naked woman masturbating beneath an Agnes Martin painting. $50.

What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw happen in a museum or gallery?

There’s a rumor that a collector broke a penis off a Jake and Dinos Chapman sculpture at an art fair…

What’s your art-world pet peeve?

Artists who don’t have websites.

What’s your favorite post-gallery watering hole or restaurant?

Sullivan Bakery on 9th Avenue in Chelsea for the pizza.

Do you have a gallery/museum-going routine?

I go to a museum with either a sketchbook or a date. Bringing both at the same time is a bad idea.

What’s the last great book you read?

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti.

What work of art do you wish you owned?

Chaim Soutine’s Still Life with Skate. I’ve seen it twice in my life, with two decades between the viewings, in special exhibits at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

What would you do to get it?

Let’s hope The Cleveland Museum, of Art which owns it, has the funds to keep it safe.

What international art destination do you most want to visit?

Art Dubai; also, Vienna, for the Bruegels.

What under-appreciated artist, gallery, or work do you think people should know about?

The artist Cary Leibowitz, sometimes known as Candy Ass, is my hero. Jerry Saltz has dubbed him the poster child of Loser Art, but I think of him more as the patron saint of artists having a shitty days. He makes multiples in large editions so there is enough for everybody. A must-have is his brown scarf that reads “I Love Andy Warhol Piss Paintings.”

Who’s your favorite living artist?

Ellen Altfest, because she’s a badass sitting outside eight hours a day in this freezing weather painting a log from life.

What are your hobbies?

I blog about art and science for the Huffington Post. I love to play chess badly on my iPhone and I go to the opera whenever possible.