Interviews with Artists

David Gardner


Interview by Benjamin Murphy


Published in November 2023


Why are you an artist? 

I guess being an artist is not something that I chose, but rather something that chose me. I  remember making pictures at the kitchen table since being a tiny kid, and then I just never  stopped. I can’t. It’s an addiction. One picture leads to the next, to the next, to the next. When the  kids at school were out in the playground at break times kicking a ball or smoking at the back of  the field I was that loner kid in the art room, mixing up paint and messing around with it. Any  spare time I had I just wanted to make stuff, and that has never changed.

I love being an artist, it’s the most ancient form of magic. It’s a total blessing that I get to do it.  It gives me life, gives me purpose, and gives me my voice.

What were you drawing back then? 

It’s really nice to think back to that actually. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that, nor have I ever  asked myself that. From a very early age I was drawing myself, my home, my mum and dad and  two big sisters. I was drawing the garden a lot. I used to get the plastic bucket from the sink and  make mini gardens in it - with soil, cut flowers, hand grabs of grass, and I’d look for insects to put  in it. My dad has cultivated a beautiful garden over the years. My family have lived in that little  council house for over 40 years now, and the garden has grown more and more beautiful. It’s a  little island of colour amongst the grey concrete estate. It’s the only nice garden for miles around.  People always peep through the fence to have a look. It brings people joy I think. Personally, it’s  my favourite place to be, that garden. 

I remember imagining and drawing my dream home, dream bedroom, I would even make maps of  dream cities that I would live in.

When I got a bit older, I would draw the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David a lot. We had this book  about the history of the world, and that was in it. I think it was my first crush. Drawing became a  means of fantasy I guess, another alternative reality. I was discovering that I was gay from a  young age so I was trying to understand that through drawings. Drawing the male form, drawing  myself and my body. I would hide most of these, these drawings were just for me.

A Sundance for Fakir, watercolour gouache and acrylic on taroni silk, 140 X 120cm

It’s interesting that you kept this hemmed-in garden as a child because your current work  features a lot of constricted and closely-cropped figures that could be seen as some kind of  continuation of that restricted freedom, or fecundity. 

Yeah, a sacred little garden, a safe space, a place completely of my own. 

A lot of the figures in my current works are being confronted by nature. There seems to be a  restriction or a violence of the figure at first - like a foot that has accidentally stepped on  something in a painful way. But actually, on close inspection, you notice the stem has grown  slowly through the foot over time - it is sustained - yet the foot still has life, colour and vigour in it.  It survives and thrives. Placing the body and flora so closely together almost binds them together,  so that instead of two, they become one. One and the same thing, made from billion year old  carbon. We literally cannot live without our natural world, and one of my biggest fears is the rapid  destruction of it, and therefore ultimately, of us. 

There was a big patch of wild land enclosed and caught behind the square of houses where I  grew up. The grass would grow twice the size of me and my friends. We would hide in, build dens  in it, burrow in it. Sometimes we would chop down parts, and snap stems - revealing it’s gooey  green sap that would stick to us all day. I can still smell that green colour! I absolutely loved  playing in there. I’d have the small mini gardens that I’d build and place things in, but actually  looking back, I also had the gigantic tall grass to immerse and get lost in.

Are you religious? Certain elements (thorns, stigmata-like penetrations, suns like glowing  gold discs) resemble distinctly Christian-like symbolism that once noticed, cannot be  ignored. 

Religion for me feels organised and repressive. I actually went to a Roman Catholic School, not  out of devotion, but probably just because they were the least worst schools in the  neighbourhood. They would take us to church every week. This big old church, St Anthony’s. It  was boring and felt like a chore. However, I was obsessed by the sculptures. Half scared and half  fascinated by them - sculptures of Jesus fresh from the cross, flesh pierced and bloody.  Sculptures of Mary draped the most vivid blue. Gold glittering everywhere. Like a moth to the  flame, I was obsessed by how it all looked. The imagery. 

I am not religious, but I am a deeply spiritual person though. I meditate and try always remain  present. Not always easy to do. My home and studio has many little altars about the place. Where  objects find themselves composed in a way that brings a sense of harmony, balance, ritual. Little  offerings if you like. I have a bonzai tree that I love and take care of, and I like to try my hand at  Ikebana. I guess my pictures also like to find themselves composed, things placed carefully next  to each other, with consideration, with meaning too. 

The hyper-saturation and the maximalist approach is also very Catholic. 

The Sun for me is my ‘God’ I guess. Turner said the same thing about it. Many different cultures  have formed rituals around it. Neolithic stones are place in response to it. A lot of my favourite  artists have tried to capture its presence. Fakir Musafar, Luchita Hurtado, Max Ernst for example.

Oh and John Martin. I’ve been obsessed with his Suns for a while. In fact, my mum used to take  me to the Laing Art Gallery when I was a kid. She saw how much I loved pictures and so took me  there often from about the age of 5. The Laing Art gallery has an amazing John Martin Painting -  The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Imagine being 5 years old and seeing that picture for  the first time! You’ll never forget it.

The piercing of flesh comes from my recent introduction to the Modern Primitives - in particular  Fakir Musafar. He pierced his flesh to have out of body experiences, and to come closer to an  inner world / state. He would recreate ancient rituals such at the Sun Dance (a Native American  ceremony) where he would pierce his flesh and attach a chord to it. The chord will then be  attached to a tree. And then through hours of back and forth tugging with the whole weight of the  body, through a  hypnotic out of body experience, the flesh would eventually break free from the  pierced chord.

There is this ancient innate need / feeling to reconnect to the Earth or something greater -  throughout human existence, this innate feeling to connect to our very being, our spirit perhaps.

Of all the Springtimes of the world, this is the ugliest, watercolour, gouache and egg tempera on taroni silk, 30 x 20cm  

Tell me about your use of colour. 

There is always a vibrancy of colour that emerges from behind, coming and making its way  through towards the viewer. I like to think of it as an inner glow / light, emerging through to the  surface. Everything is lit from behind and coming out into the space of the viewer, hopefully even  glowing its colour onto the faces of the audience and the space around the gallery. The vibrancy  of colour is also quite seductive too, it is what perhaps draws the audience in at first. I like to use  colour in a way that choreographs the viewers’ eyes around the surface, and then through and  into the space of the picture. All of the stems and overlapping elements in my pictures create lots  of wonderful contained spaces to develop colour combinations. I like to think of them as my  shelves of colour. I get super excited by finding new complex arrangements of colour - it’s what  brings me the most joy in the work actually, discovering new colour combinations, and just seeing  and witnessing the pure magic of colour and how it can shape shift and transform depending on  its surrounding fields of colour.

A friend of mine recently pointed out how I like to wear outfits that have lots of layers and colours  that shouldn’t work together but somehow do… and they pointed out how my pictures operate in  the same way. And that was very much a break through moment for me. An aha moment!

Chainlink fences occur occasionally too, which suggest a “look but don’t touch” kind of  voyeurism on the part of the viewer as they gaze upon the constriction of the subject.  Is that a factor you consciously aim to explore in the work? The act of looking? 

For sure! I went to St Anthony’s of Padua Basilica when I was in Italy last Summer, and also  visited the many churches and cathedrals. There isn’t an empty bit of space anywhere, jam  packed with imagery, colour, sculpture etc. Floor to ceiling frescos. It’s so artificial in many ways,  so gorgeously indulgent, sickly almost, like an Haute-Couture gown. But actually, so is the natural  world so hyper saturated and maximalist when it is allowed to roam free and wild at its own  accord, but in such a powerful authentic co-existence. If only humanity could take note!

The veils of foliage, the fences, the flower placed right in the super foreground, all suggest  space… an outer space and an inner space. A vast sense of space into the distance toward a  Sun, or an intimate gaze onto the tiny water droplet on a stem, and then this middle place where  the body stands. 

The veils act as thresholds, doorways or portals to be invited into, or to escape from. The main  direction for me, when making the work, is an inward dive. Looking inward to myself, what can be  unleashed from the subconscious. What lurks, what seeks liberation. I like the Jung saying, “That  which you most need will be found where you least want to look.”

But yeah, the veil has always been a recurring theme for me. This inward / outward direction of  looking, to penetrate and burrow through the surface. Lately I’ve also been thinking about the  upwards and downwards direction of the gaze on the surface too, especially after visiting those  churches in Italy, where you are always arching the neck upwards.

Julie Mehretu has been a massive inspiration when it comes to thinking about space through veils  of colour. The space in her paintings blows my mind.

There was a photo you shared online recently that really helped me understand your work  to a deeper level. It ties together nicely the interest in feet (or more commonly a single foot)  with the focus on the self as subject in the work. Can you tell me about it?

Oh yeah! That’s Peter Hujar, boy sucking toe! My favourite ever photo! One day I’d love a print of  that, and to live around it. 

I saw that at the ICA in London when I just moved to London in 2007. It was a Peter Hujar  retrospective. It blew my mind and I’ve never forgotten it. I love how he captures his sitters  (usually friends, lovers etc) in such an empathetic pure moment of stillness. Humans being beautifully human and vulnerable. He is the photographer that captured Candy Darling on her  death bed surrounded my beautiful flowers. 

But this Daniel Schook Sucking Toe image is my favourite… this full circling of the toe back into  the mouth, like the Ouroboros snake. Infinity. But also a queer image, sexy, the male form looking  so beautiful and confident.

STILL, watercolour, gouache and egg tempera on taroni silk, 20 x 30cm

There are some nice dichotomies there: vulnerability and confidence, beauty and death etc.  Tell me about the flowers. The specific ones you seem to revert back to often (sunflowers  and dandelions) are both hermaphroditic and it’s as if there are many elements that suggest  a fusing of what could be called the stereotypically masculine and feminine: the bringing  together of opposites. 

Yeah exactly, the sunflower and dandelion produce seeds asexually by apomixis, without  fertilisation. Apomictic plants are genetically identical from one generation to the next, a true species lineage. A sort of non-binary, hermaphroditism. Neither one or the other, a mixture of the  two. Double spirited as they say in Native American tribes. Masculine and Feminine, side by side.

The Sunflower has always been a mysterious one for me. It’s like a big all knowing eye that has  seen too much and holds a great secret. It is revered, seen as beautiful, and can grow beyond  limitation. And the dandelion, with its deep roots, its medicinal properties, its light beautiful seeds,  its successful fecundity, its tales of wish giving. Yet seen as a rogue weed! It knows no barriers  and borders, and spreads abundantly.

And what I love most about these two plants, as opposed to others, is how beautifully they wilt. I  never paint them in their fullness of bloom, they are always in their swan song, their last beautiful  twist towards the Sun. And they never wilt in the same way twice. I love watching this process!

Tell me about this newest body of work Haunted by Paradise. 

There is a sun that makes its way through all of the images - a sun cycle that is high in the sky,  low down, slightly hidden behind, or its presence is felt through the hot glow on flesh and the tips  of leaves and stems. It is at once giving a hot beautiful light throughout the images, an inner glow  that comes through everything. But it is also perhaps at a boiling point about to explode, a  destruction imminent for the resetting of balance. 

The flesh, figures, and feet in the images are very present and occupy the space of the picture  plane, sometimes wanting to escape the perimeter of the canvas - liberation and freedom sought. 

But they are rooted to the Earth. At first it seems by violent means. But on closer inspection, the  stem has grown slowly through the foot, the vines have wrapped and bound carefully around the  form. This is a long sustained action. There is a consensual act taking place between the body  and nature. Two species becoming one. Metamorphosis. Flesh and flora combine, like a  transformed Daphne trying to escape Apollo. 

The feet can be seen as an obedient humble underdog of the body, yet they mightily balance and  crane a whole body up in space against gravity. They are what root us to the Earth. Bare feet on  the Earth can absorb free electrons into the body, nourishing the body, mind, and soul. The feet  also have an ancient spiritual significance to many cultures around the world. There is an ancient  wisdom to be regained here.

I guess the feet in my pictures are trying reconnect the body with the Earth. We find ourselves in a  world where we are becoming so disconnected to the natural world with dyer consequences - a  slow sustained apocalypse, to put it bluntly. I always keep thinking of the last stanzas of Tishani  Doshi’s poem Species: 

“We should have learned from the grass, humble in its abundance, offering food and shelter  wherever it spread. Instead, we stamped our feet like gods, marvelling at the life we made,  imagining all of it to be ours.” 

And there is this recurring idea of space in the pictures too. The act of looking either from the  inside or the outside. The act of going through the surface, the penetration of a boundary, a  threshold, a gateway. What dwells beneath the surface? Going back to that Jungian idea of ‘what  we need the most will be find where we least want to look.’ For me, it seems that a way towards  healing this relationship between humanity and itself alongside our natural world comes down to  our personal, cultural and spiritual ways of looking too. It seems for a long time we have been  living from the outside-in, instead of the inside-out. A dose of personal and collective deep dive  inward looking might just unleash a new super human power perhaps.


David Gardner was the overall winner of the 2022 Delphian Open Call and his winner’s exhibition Haunted by Paradise opens at Wilder Gallery soon.

77 College Road, London NW10 5ES, United Kingdom 

Enquiries to info@wilder.gallery


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If you like this why not read our interview with Sofia Hallström


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