Brent Harris : Penny Webb

in

Brent Harris Grotesquerie
Kalimany Gallery
Sydney

Realism, by tooth and claw, in a Brent Harris catalogue - A 32-page catalogue was published by Kaliman Gallery, Sydney to coincide with the exhibition "Brent Harris: Grotesquerie". The show of paintings and woodcuts ran from 24 October to 16 November, 2002, having previously been shown in Melbourne. The booklet is beautiful. One of the works in the show is reproduced on the cover; the artist's name appears discreetly, lower left.
In place of an introductory essay, the catalogue presents an extract from a story by Gillian Mears, titled "Sad Quarrion", from her collection "A Map of the Gardens", recently published by Picador. Quarrion is another name for a cockatiel, the caged bird in Mears' story. The four pages of text are numbered 141 to 144, presumably preserving their original published form. The text's status as extract or quotation is enhanced by having been printed on a browny-grey rectangle, creating a page within a page.
Significantly, the gorgeous paper stock (low sheen, washable) also, subtly, presents this text as an image. But this typographic image is as lumpy as Harris' paintings are smooth: the letter forms are a riot of unreliable descenders, botched terminals and furry stems. In contrast, Harris' images appear controlled, fluid and flat, as indeed the canvases are in reality.
But, with regard to propositional content, there is less discrepancy between Mears' text and Harris' images. Words such as "grotesque", "animal", "fairy tale", "oversized" and the question, "Couldn't he have been just for once the prey not the predator?" resonate with Harris' characters although no "animal gleam of light" disturbs the flatness of his astonishing images. But "Split me in two so I can grow", the last line of the extract, directly sets the scene for the paintings that follow.
Harris, who had been working with increasingly organic-looking abstract forms for some time, spent two months in Japan in 1999, learning woodblock printmaking. The flowing lines, elliptical shapes and folds familiar to anyone interested in Japanese woodblock prints and their influence on Western composition during the 19th century have become, in Harris' hands, the means to stage a provocative, psychological drama. The move was from amorphous mass to your worst nightmare, painted in the most tasteful way, in large, flat areas of warm black, warm white, much smaller areas of pale yellow, winey red, browny red, pale grey and two restricted instances of orange. The same palette might be found, for example, in the late-18th-century prints of Kabuki actors by Toshusai Sharaku.
In the first image, "Grotesquerie (No. 1)", the head and shoulders of a yellow-haired figure who looks up and over "her" shoulder at a sort of rubber-glove head, with two fingers or two horns on the top. The spatial relationship between the two characters initiates a pictorial economy that uses repeated elements _ a traditional approach disparaged by modern Japanese printmakers _ across the other works. But Harris' vocabulary of shapes and sinuous lines stunningly articulates some basic oppositions: between figure and ground; black and white; masculine and feminine.
If you've ever been to a tailor's shop, you're likely to have seen dozens, perhaps hundreds, of patterns for garment parts hanging up. After a lifetime of perfecting the craft, a tailor can combine and adapt these templates to construct any garment required. Harris' pictorial economy operates in an analogous way. He creates scenes out of body parts, cut to the measure of his desires. With masterly precision, he evokes threat, anxiety, confusion, pain, panic, despair, endurance and longing.
His two or three characters are at once familiar and unfamiliar, menacing and pathetic. While this may be an aspect of the ``splitting in two'' that Mears' protagonist anguishes over, the doubling produced by the unstable boundaries between the figures is unnerving. NEW PARA In that the work is representational, it posits a world. Any realism is a good thing: the more nuanced our visualisations and the more developed our descriptive powers, the more enriched our perceptions of the world we inhabit are likely to be.
But it was written of Sharaku during his brief but spectacular career in 1794-95 that "his excess of zeal to draw the real realistically led him to produce strange works". Harris is a radical realist working with comparable poetic power. Cowfish or cuckold, predator or prey, flayed or flagrant: this is not a story to be told in words.
Penny Webb