The Artsy Vanguard 2023: Harminder Judge

At his East London warehouse studio, Harminder Judge is standing framed by two large wall-based plaster works. As if portals, the rectangular, abstract pieces seem to invite the viewer into another world thronging with specters. Shapes and forms loom from the dusky surface, and blooming color is layered into polished surfaces that the artist described as “gleaming, glowing, stone-like objects that hold internal power and project a painterly presence.” His current works give off a Rorschach sensibility. En masse, they trace a path through the unconscious mind as it flits around and seeks meaning through recognition.

Judge’s current works are decidedly material, a development from the early-career performances which he was known for. In 2012, when he seemed to be reaching a peak in the world of U.K. live art out of his base in Birmingham, Judge decided to take a career break to reframe his practice and engagement with the art world. He missed having a material practice, what he describes as a “daily spiritual practice, like yoga,” and moved to Berlin, living between there and Sheffield in the north of England, where he bought a broken-down house, gutted and rebuilt it from scratch.

He contextualized this personal project within his current durational artmaking process. “It took ages…the way you build a house is through a series of small labors,” he said. “It seems massive, but you build it up in these layers day after day.” This almost decade-long “time-out” enabled him to hone his thinking and making, and to take aspects of his new experience with him into his art.

Rather than artist paints and mediums, he chooses to employ building materials and tools in his practice. He described plaster as the “bridge between sculpture and painting,” which seems to capture the way his works exist in a liminal space between surface and object. This new, refocused body of work has catapulted the artist’s career through solo presentations at Mumbai gallery Jhaveri Contemporary and London’s The Sunday Painter (which also presented Judge’s work in a solo booth for Frieze London 2022). Forthcoming presentations in London at Matt’s Gallery and The Sunday Painter are slated for 2024.

Untitled (soil cursed and lit and burst), 2022
Harminder Judge

The Sunday Painter

Developed over four years of postgraduate study at the Royal Academy of Art (which he completed in 2021), his latest works are a series of multi-panel wall pieces, which act almost as couplets. These are created with large-scale molds, and made through a lengthy process of layering different materials into custom table-top casting beds. Wet plaster is poured as cement pigment is added, then layered between sheets of scrim (hessian fabric). The first layer has to be created quickly, though the rest of the work takes weeks to create. The final effect is not seen until the work is lifted off, as the underside then becomes the front and is painstakingly polished.

Discussing this process, the artist mentions a well-known quote from Francis Bacon: “I believe in deeply ordered chaos. I want a very ordered image but I want it to come about by chance.” This cosmic ordering is the effect of Judge’s involved process, after which he decides if the work can be kept. He looks to the surface to see if it “sings” with structure. The process itself is performative, as the studio becomes a space of ritual. Pieces that don’t achieve the harmony of form that he’s looking for are broken down and recycled to go into the next work, in a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Judge is also inspired by neo-tantric and visionary artists, many of which he found in the book Tantra Song: Tantric Painting from Rajasthan. In his understanding, “like mandalas, these [neo-tantric] works don’t operate as paintings, they operate as portals; and you don’t look at them, you look through them to think about ideas that are bigger than you,” he said. “That’s what abstraction is so good at, it can transport you to the realm of the ineffable in a way that’s difficult in figuration or performance.”

These inspirations have materialized into exhibition-making. Earlier this year he co-curated “Love Letter,” a group show at Pace Gallery in New York, with Loie Hollowell. The exhibition placed the two artists’ works in conversation with paintings by Agnes Pelton, a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group in the United States, and modernist Kashmiri neo-tantric painter Ghulam Rasool Santosh.

It is easy to see the influence of this meditative symmetry in the panels in Judge’s newest series, and they are sometimes created as a pair. However, as he explained, “I don’t think of [my work] as neo-tantric painting. I’m as in love with Richard Tuttle as I am with the Tantrikas. I think about Western art history, tantric painting, performance art. These [works] are made in a kind of spiritual way but I want them to stand up on their own.”

This engagement with meditative process and the subconscious is a constant in Judge’s practice, as far back as his very first performance work, which was during a symposium at Tate Modern. For this work, the artist modified a little portable Marshall speaker and placed it in the back of his mouth, at the opening of his throat.

Untitled (under the pyre), 2023
Harminder Judge

Jhaveri Contemporary

Untitled (shoot through soil), 2023
Harminder Judge

Jhaveri Contemporary

Untitled (lifting to chest), 2023
Harminder Judge

Jhaveri Contemporary

Untitled (she emerges from soil), 2023
Harminder Judge

Jhaveri Contemporary

The performance was inspired by a recent research trip to a Sikh temple that his parents had co-built in a village in Punjab where his uncles are still farmers. When visiting, the artist noticed the resident priest had a beautiful singing voice, which he used—as is traditional in Sikhism—to deliver the holy text of the Guru Granth Sahib in song. Judge recorded the holy man singing, and at the Tate performance Live Sermon (2007), played it through the speaker in his mouth, while he stood in a pool of milk with his shoulders, neck and face painted blue. The various aspects of this performance contributed to a tapestry of mythologies, decontextualized and reordered.

Judge’s confronting early performances seem very different from the slow and meticulous way he now works, yet they share DNA with the new objects in their visual cosmologies and psychedelic palettes. He reflects on this time before 2011 as a period of “composting” for the work he’s making now. In the work The Modes Of Al-Ikseer (2009), Judge filled a whole room with unpasteurized cow’s milk and stood on a slowly rotating platform in the center.

He compared the work to a “giant color field painting…a large image,” noting its connections to the Hindu mythological story of Samudra Manthan, in which the gods churn an ocean of milk using a rotating mountain, supported by the god Vishnu in the form of a giant tortoise. This myth, according to the artist, is about “the birth of consciousness out of the primordial soup. If you’re talking to a quantum physicist, it’s the big bang.”

This exploration of meaning and consciousness is embedded in (or “churned into,” perhaps) Judge’s current practice. As he explained, “I deeply believe in my practice as it is now: It’s everything. The performance making was one step on that journey.”

Untitled (opening cage and ribs displayed), 2022
Harminder Judge

The Sunday Painter

Untitled (limb over fragments ascending), 2022
Harminder Judge

The Sunday Painter

Untitled (ghee sparked move), 2022
Harminder Judge

The Sunday Painter

The plaster works in Judge’s vast warehouse stand out as doorways, others offer specters and suggestions to the viewer—a flower, perhaps, or a vulva. For Judge, who takes great joy in the process of making these works, chaos turns into surprise and alchemizes into transcendence.

The Artsy Vanguard 2023

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The sixth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 10 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2023 and browse works by the artists.

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