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The Third Incarnation: Noël St. John Harnden, February Featured Artist

This month I sat down with artist Noël St. John Harnden in his second-floor studio to discuss his work, his winding career path, and his inspiration. The English artist has previously worked in both fashion and music, and is now working as a semi-abstract figurative painter here in Washington, D.C.

Noël St. John Harnden in his 2nd floor space at 52 O Street Studios

The Third Incarnation

Harnden jokingly refers to his current career as a painter as his “third incarnation.” As a young adult in England, despite being encouraged to pursue painting, Harnden decided to study fashion design. He attended the Kingston School of Art, where he received rigorous training to prepare him for a career in the commercial fashion sector. After graduating, he moved to New York to work in trend forecasting, manually creating lookbooks for designers. There, much of Harnden’s work involved sketching, cutting and pasting to create layouts on tight deadlines. After working in fashion, Harnden was also involved in music as a member of blues-based rock & roll band The Twelve, and then after that, he began painting.

Like many artists who have spent time in the art world capital, Harnden credits New York City, particularly the NARS Foundation residency program, as formative for his career. When discussing the differences between New York and D.C. as centers for art, Harnden mentions the wide availability of studio space in New York compared to the limited options in D.C. as challenging. Still, Harnden sees a lot of potential in our city, citing 11:Eleven gallery's Nicola Charles, by whom Harnden is represented, and Homme Gallery's Amir Browder as figures who are advocating for artists and pushing boundaries with their programming. Events like our upcoming Open Studios are also crucial for connecting to the community and building interest around what D.C. artists are doing.

Acrylic paint, pencils, pastel and other supplies in Harnden's studio

Other realities

The human figure is ever-present in Harnden’s work. Often they are moving, bending, or stretching with their faces turned away from the viewer, as the lines of their body blend into each other and dance around in the junctures. A holdover from his fashion career, the hand-drawn line of the human form is quite present in his current work. His attention to the curved lines of the body and the rendering of three dimensional space with pure line play with the depth perception of the viewer, something that Harnden does intentionally. In many of his paintings, the figures are composed solely of lines and their bodies blend in with a linear-stroked painterly background. Where does the figure end and the background begin? What is the relationship between the two? As Harnden inquires, “What is form? What is matter? What is dimension?”

The interaction between humans and our environment is an important theme for Harnden. As we move through life, we interact with the environment as it interacts with us. Harnden cites new-age thinkers like Terence McKenna and Carlos Castaneda as having been influential to his work. “It’s not really about the ethnobotanicals,” he clarifies, “I was more interested in people describing other realities through whatever they used as a doorway.” His interest in such thinkers is about pushing the boundaries of belief and toeing the edge of what is possible. Harnden’s use of semi-abstraction stretches the realm of possibility by allowing for multiple viewer interpretations. He enjoys when children look at his work and see completely different things within his colors, lines, and forms.

Many of his figures appear to be wearing masks and headphones: in today’s visual lexicon, two symbols of the insular world we have grown accustomed to in the last few years. The appearance of such motifs in his work is actually the product of necessity; when working in his studio in Brooklyn, Harnden wanted to work with models but didn’t have the room to accomodate them, so he posed himself in front of a camera. The mask he wore due to his sensitivity to dry pigments, and the headphones a necessity that any artist working in a shared space knows well. For Harnden, the fact that masks and headgear trigger people to think of aliens, superheroes, or anarchists is just another way to play with the multitude of meanings made possible by semi-figurative abstraction. He moved away from painting masks (presciently) around 2018, but still continues to include headphones for their visual effect.

View of Harnden's studio with two works in progress

Ancient Materials, Timeless Lines

When asked about his choice of materials, he mentioned that his interest in charcoal relates to its history. “Charcoal is a sort of an anchor point in time because it's the same thing that somebody could use to draw on a cave 40,000 years ago, it's the same implement, right? It's a burned piece of wood. And that translates into creativity through time.” After watching Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary film about the 35,000 year old cave drawings discovered in Southern France, Harnden was deeply inspired.

When a mark is made, like one from the Chauvet Cave or one of Harnden’s, a viewer is able to witness the act of someone translating a thought into something physical. During our discussion, I was reminded of a previous interview I had conducted with Jeffrey Berg, where we also talked about the primacy of drawing. Drawing is often where we start- as children scribbling with crayons, as engineers or architects illustrating complex ideas, as fashion designers rendering fabric into two dimensions, or as artists employing the mark in its purest form.

The mark is also highly personal. We are fascinated by sketches, studies, and preliminary drawings that reveal errant marks, erasures, and scribbles. When we see a mark we can see the artist’s hand. For Harnden, the power of the mark also lies in its connection to other areas of creativity and its ability to inspire us to push the boundaries of what is possible- the “what if?” From fan-made blueprints of the Starship Enterprise to the imagined sketches of Roman aqueducts, the path forward follows a single line.

Charcoal study in Harnden's studio

To stay connected with Noël St. John Harnden, visit his Instagram here and his website here.

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