When is a landscape not a landscape? When it melds into an abstracted realm of pure plasticity, confounding and exciting all at once. In paintings by Gregory Hardy, the alchemy of art takes place in front of our very eyes. The burgeoning skies that are his forte, present nothing less than a celestial spectacle. The Prairies beckon the Saskatoon-born artist’s muse, nature infusing his psyche from early on. This greatest of creative influences, that has profoundly marked the oeuvre of generations of Canadian painters, has also taken hold of Hardy’s spirit, and brushstroke. Its overwhelming expanse imbued his work with gestural energy that seems to course through his hand as if it were some kind of a conduit, spilling onto the canvas in a magnificent torrent of creativity. Bringing to mind the striking ravaged paintings of Paterson Ewen, these works shock and excite, drawing and tugging the eye through their unnerving, beautiful compositions.

Considered one of the foremost contemporary landscape painters, Hardy has taken his subject matter to a plastic realm of unexpected, thrilling proportions. Beyond the initial reading of his tableaux lies the world of pure painting, of brush against canvas in an intuitive, compelling struggle towards a creative denouement. The need for visual gratification is passed on to the viewer, as Hardy’s works seem to exponentially increase a craving for more.

In these powerful paintings, landscape is fictionalized, pictorially modified, reconstituted and released back into the light of day, and the eye of the beholder. And there is much to behold in Hardy’s textured, large format works, where light streams down from above in an anticipation of a spiritual revelation, and where billowing clouds appear to transform into otherworldly soaring objects. Resembling a giant flotilla, they rumble across the canvas, jostling and crowding, only to disperse like a shoal of floating boulders.

The exhibition at Han Art gallery focused on Hardy’s signature skies that have captured the attention of both art critics and collectors. Reminiscent of the representation of skies in classical religious paintings as spiritual phenomena, they invariably attest to nature’s transcendental influence on the creative mind.

While born of the Canadian landscape, the vast physical and psychological expanse of the Prairies, the work of Gregory Hardy releases invisible filaments across time and space, bringing to mind Hindu religious paintings and Buddhist tangka, where flying deities preside against the backdrop of stylized, personified celestial landscape, or the improbable, swirling skies of the great Vincent van Gogh.

Although devoid of human presence, each of Hardy’s paintings is a setting for the artist himself, the final result of his visual notations and inner ruminations. The prairie light and space he knows so well become props, backdrops to a giant theatrical spectacle of both form and colour, with the narration provided by the inaudible, persistent humming of the creative energy imbuing it.

In Silver Day, giant clouds resembling flying boulders soar across a blue sky, their reflections darkening the shimmering water beneath them. Their craggy countenance defies our perception, and there is something deliciously subversive in Hardy’s irreverent assault on both our senses, and logic.

Lyricism permeates the long, horizontal work with a poetic, haiku-sounding title: Darkness of a Storm, Hot August Night. A wavy formation of clouds, illuminated from behind and resembling a mountain range, dominates the composition; Hardy’s signature blue, the palette. A minuscule, notched landscape is juxtaposed with the towering presence that occupies the rest of the space, in a well-established format that is the artist’s visual choreography.

Like a painterly kōan, Probable Storm, Islands, offers a pictorial conundrum in a layered composition with three distinct landscapes melded into a thickly textured tableau. From the narrow band of land and trees that is its starting point, it carries the eye upward through swirling, massing and dissolving clouds, punctuated by dabs of red and orange like tiny licking tongues of fire, towards an unexpectedly serene pale blue. It’s like being caught in a maelstrom, only to be magically transported, bewildered, into a realm of pure light.

Gregory Hardy spares no one in the visual explosion that is Storm, French Blue, bringing to the foreground his acute talent as a colourist. The eponymous blue is but the setting for a confusion, an accidental onslaught of orange-hued clouds, moving ponderously across the canvas, swallowing the surrounding space while at the same time morphing from flame to solid mass. The essence of landscape painting that is light, here takes centre stage, infusing the scene with a burning presence.

The materiality of Hardy’s paintings is what draws the viewer in; their underlying spirituality is what ultimately remains. As plastically accomplished and impossibly bold as his landscapes are, they are also portals into the realm beyond the senses; the alchemy of art at work. It is similar to the effect nature has on the soul of an artist – and the human heart – imparting a sense of transcendence, of a connection with the unseen. With eyes wide open.