Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Brent Harris: The Other Side
Auckland Art Gallery
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
“Brent Harris: The Other Side” is the first major survey exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in New Zealand. It includes recent works that reflect the artist’s reconnection with the country as well as paintings and prints drawn from his most important series of works dating from the late 1980s to the present.
The New Zealand born artist moved to Melbourne in 1981 to study at the Victorian College of the Arts where he has lived there since. In 2016, following the death of his father, he felt able to return to his country of birth after an absence of several decades. It was an episode in his life that resulted in an intense period of artistic production.
Over a career of more than four decades, Harris has developed a significant body of work including paintings, prints and drawings. His work combines personal and universal images which deal with issues around self, family, land and the spiritual. These touch on personal elements of desire, sexuality, guilt, mortality and identity.
Much of his work shows a stylistic debt to other artists, notably Colin McCahon. One of the first works in the exhibition, “Here I give thanks to Kelly” looks very much like a McCahon of the late 1950’s with its combination of geometry and words. The text itself is a direct reference to McCahon’s abstract work “Here I give thanks Mondrian”.
Harris is also referencing the work of the American abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly who often used simple organic shapes.
Another obvious borrowing is seen in his earlier “The Stations” where he used the geometric, abstract shapes of American Barnett Newman. These simple rectilinear lines, intersecting shapes and cross forms become a means of addressing issues around religion spirituality. In this regard his work is also similar to McCahons who used simple lines and symbols to depict the final journey of Christ.
A more recent “The Stations” series combines more figurative and landscape elements so the work takes on the sense of a more personal journey.
In both these series of the stations the first image contains a large “O” shape, one which occurs in many of his other works. The “O” shape is like an abstract bullseye where the eye exists as a symbol for the Biblical all-seeing eye and is close to the “I” used by McCahon to signify himself and a greater power. This same shape can also be seen as a mirror in which the artist reflects on himself as well as having other figures engaged in self-reflection.
Another borrowing from McCahon is the “The Gate. The Mirror” which combines the symbolism of McCahon’s “Gate” series with their combination of landscape and self-revelation. These elements of McCahon are combined with the minimalist mark making of Jaspar Johns.
Several of the works feature landscapes which are drawn from the landscape of his youth – distant snow-capped mountains like ice cream which are used to signify an Eden like landscape which also includes an Adam and Eve.
“The Swamp” series feature abstract shapes which resemble wispy swamp plant forms or creatures which seem to be morphing into humanoid shapes. existing in some sort of dreamworld. This sense of dreamworld is also present in another series titled “The Grotesquerie”, which have strong psychological aspects, examining his fraught family connections. Here Dali-like stylised images of his father and mother are observed by the “O” of the artist.
With many of his work notably “The Swamp” and “The Grotesquerie” one can detect a surrealist element which can be seen as the artist using his art as a form of psychoanalysis. It enables him to explore and understand his relationship with family and religion.
The way the artist has used elements of landscape, family figures and references to other artists is one of the stimulating aspects of the exhibition, discovering how he has created his own visual language and how he has used it.
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