Oil on canvas
1105 x 2440mm
Inscriptions: 'UNTITLED' 2020–21 / OIL ON LINEN / BH / BRENT HARRIS [verso]
Although Brent Harris has been based in Australia since 1981, his work retains strong connections to Aotearoa. Motifs associated with time spent in the Manawatū and Taranaki regions in his youth, including trees, swamps, and mountains, recur in his paintings and prints. Also prevalent are references to the psychologies of familial relationships and sexuality, and to the history of art.
Bold, clean lines and blocks of broadly solid colour have long featured in Harris’s works, lending them a certain cartoonish quality. This is only enhanced by his interest in distorted and bizarre subject matter: disembodied eyes and hands, curious puddles of liquid and puffs of gas, slippery forms that might equally be bodies or non-human elements of the natural world. As Robert Leonard has observed, many of his images are the result of automatic, or chance-based, image-making processes of the kind favoured by the surrealists.
Harris’s work tends to be marked by sombreness, but it is not solely or overwhelmingly dark. Wit and kookiness balance psychological intensity. Over the past few years, he has increased his use of more atmospheric paint-handling, colliding this with the hard-edge style that dominates earlier pieces. There is great sensuality to his pictures, some even verging on the erotic.
Untitled is a grand and poetic work. The schematic heads that flank the central scene act both as formal elements, curtain-like frames, and as ever-present spectators. Similar entities are to be found in other paintings by the artist. He reuses his visual devices with enthusiasm. Iteration binds his works together stylistically and suggests that they might all derive from the one grand narrative or fever dream.
The core of Untitled shows a blue angelic figure and a more immediately human one, ostensibly atop a mountain. The silhouetted forms evoke shadow puppetry and Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, while the expansive sky might recall works by the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Harris notes that the angel is a nod towards depictions of the Angel of the Annunciation, including Colin McCahon’s well-known painting of 1947. The emphasis is not necessarily on religion so much as on visionary or transcendent experience—experience that knows no name.
Robert Heald Gallery, Auckland Art Fair, Tāmaki Makaurau, 24 to 27 February 2021
Purchased from Robert Heald, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, March 2021.