At Work With Emily Gernild

  • Words Emily Nathan
  • Photos Cecilie Jegsen

The Danish painter breathing new life into an old medium.

Issue 51

, Features


Arts & Culture

  • Words Emily Nathan
  • Photos Cecilie Jegsen

Gernild prefers to work on large-scale canvases, though the immediacy of her approach means that her small drawings are no less engaging.

Gernild paints with rabbit-skin glue, a medium that has been used in art since the Renaissance.

Most tales of artistic calling begin with a childhood marked by an irrepressibly creative spirit, but the story of Danish painter Emily Gernild is rather less predetermined. Her career, pursued at the suggestion of a boyfriend during a period of existential confusion in her mid-20s, has been brief for an artist in their late 30s. But though she has only worked professionally for a few years, the power of her searing, visceral compositions, alternating intriguingly between figuration and abstraction, has placed her squarely at the vanguard of contemporary painting.

On a gray winter morning at her third-floor studio outside Copenhagen, Gernild’s husband, Mads Hansen, busies himself in the quaint kitchenette. Lighting candles against the gloom, he explains that he’s recently stepped away from his career as a lecturer to work as Gernild’s “handyman.” The change, he says, has enabled them to spend more time together as they raise their two children and manage the demands of Gernild’s blossoming career.

“Our situation is much better now,” Gernild says, accepting a cup of coffee from her husband. “After work, Mads gets the kids and sometimes brings them here, so I can finish what I’m doing without stressing. This is just the reality of life: having kids, having to work, but wanting to be together, and now he’s investing his time back into the family instead of outside of it.”

Gernild’s renown has grown exponentially. Since graduating from the Funen Art Academy in 2016, she has exhibited in international solo shows, and she is now represented by galleries in Denmark, Norway and Germany, where she spent a formative year at the Düsseldorf Academy. She had an unconventional start, however. As a 25-year-old art-school applicant, she had no portfolio, having previously abandoned her studies in theology to spend time traveling, and had to quickly cobble one together. She also started at Funen at a time when conceptual art, rather than painting, reigned supreme. But Düsseldorf brought Gernild into orbit with acclaimed painters like Rita McBride, Peter Doig and Katharina Grosse, as well as her Danish mentor, Tal R, all of whom opened her eyes to the medium’s possibilities and confirmed her identity as a painter.  

Her work recalls the bold, graphic gestures of the Fauvists but replaces their expansive observations of natural landscapes with an interest in the domestic. Her large-scale canvases seethe with layers of wild color, organic forms that pulse and fade, and fleeting glimpses of just-recognizable silhouettes: a tulip outlined in quick strokes, or the wooden back of a kitchen chair, its legs melting into the floor. Fruits and vegetables abound; oblong and rotund, root and stone, they offer moments from a still life in X-ray—eggplants frozen in a flash of penetrating light.

Gernild paints with rabbit-skin glue, a medium that has been used in art since the Renaissance.

“I believe that the banal also contains the greatest miracles.”

“My mother was a teacher at a Waldorf school, so my childhood was very connected to nature, and I think that showed up a lot,” Gernild says, reflecting on the subjects of earlier work. “But these days, I’m moving away from recognizable figures in my painting. I feel sometimes that it can lock me in, that the viewer takes one look and I’ve given it all away. I’m more interested in working with the surface to create possibilities, provoking something in the distance between the painting and the viewer.”

In her studio, wooden tables overflow with tubes of paint, sticks and bottles. She often combines oil paint and acrylic in the same work, but her signature medium is rabbit-skin glue, which has been used in art since the Renaissance. Gernild prepares it herself: Amber crystals of adhesive are melted, cooled and then mixed with powdered pigments in various concentrations to achieve the desired color and viscosity. She uses the glue to prime her canvases; unlike other primers, it enables her to modulate transparency or opacity, occasionally allowing the texture of the canvas to peek through. She applies it like watercolor—in drips or splatters—or slathers it in thick, creamy swaths. 

“It was during COVID that I had the time to really play with rabbit-skin glue,” she says, “and I discovered that I enjoy how it lets me respect the material of the surface I’m working on. I think the canvas is alive, and rather than suffocate it with plastic [acrylic paints], the rabbit-skin glue lets it breathe.”

Because of its liquid properties, Gernild always starts a new painting on the ground; phantom marks of dried pigment outline the studio floor like tape at a crime scene. She works intuitively, she says, and while she might begin with the spark of an idea, it’s the painting that directs her. This is the reason her smaller works-on-paper, often considered preparatory sketches by other large-scale painters, have a life of their own; no one work prepares her for another.

Gernild professes a deep, abiding respect for the material presence and voice of the canvas, describing her process as a revelatory one. Rather than projecting a desired outcome onto a canvas, she explains, it speaks and she engages with it. Every stroke creates a new physical or textural condition, which she then must react to—and the conversation continues until she can tell that the painting is, in her words, “dressed up to go out the door.”

“I pay attention to the painting, and I listen to what is going on,” she says. “If I get too obsessed with an idea, if I overpaint and overwork, I lose the good painting. The most basic idea or inspiration for me is just the start: The canvas gives me an opportunity that I don’t want to lose.” 

An only child, raised by her mother, Gernild has always been interested in issues that relate to the experience of being female, specifically the institutional treatment of women throughout history. Her artistic exploration of tropes like flowers, houses and domestic interiors are infused with strangeness and mystery. She reframes these subjects—those which women artists were traditionally limited to—as windows into deeper, darker truths, rife with opportunity for perversion. At once rooted in something terrestrial and something otherworldly, works such as Black Lemons (2020), Pods (2015-20) and Trinity (2020) are at times anchored in the chalk of rotted citrus as it turns to dust, and at others cosmic, capturing the descent of twinkling dark.

“It’s never been the classic setups that interested me,” she says. “It’s more a glimpse of something on my way out the door: dirty dishes stacked in the sink, or how the flowers on the counter are decaying. Flowers look just like each other when they’re new and fresh, but as time goes by, they fall apart in such different ways, becoming more themselves as they die. The things that interest me are banal. But I believe that the banal also contains the greatest miracles.”

In recent canvases, Gernild’s move away from recognizable objects has led her into more philosophical and spiritual territory. Her palette is darker than it once was, and so are her subjects. A fascination with the systemic use of lobotomy as a treatment for female hysteria in Denmark throughout much of the 20th century has recurred in her paintings for almost a decade, and it became the theme for her biggest solo exhibition to date, Aunts and Dolls, which opened at Gammel Holtegaard outside of Copenhagen in November 2023. 

In the show’s 35 works, figuration and abstraction are intertwined, yet they seem to reflect a primordial harmony between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic: amoebas creeping toward evolution; long drops of color, like blood running through veins; a doctor’s gloved hand, towering above an extended figure. And as always, there is a mischievous invitation embedded in Gernild’s curdled red pigments, in the lush, feminine shapes: a dare to name what you think you see. 

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 51

Want to enjoy full access? Subscribe Now

Subscribe Discover unlimited access to Kinfolk

  • Four print issues of Kinfolk magazine per year, delivered to your door, with twelve-months’ access to the entire archive and all web exclusives.

  • Receive twelve-months of all access to the entire archive and all web exclusives.

Learn More

Already a Subscriber? Login

Your cart is empty

Your Cart (0)