Brent Harris’s The Fall

Brent Harris, VIII from The Fall series, 2012, monotype, image: 31.5 x 23.5 cm, sheet: 48.0 x 38.0 cm. Collection of the artist, © the artist. Photo: Brent Harris

‘Imagery emerges, is sometimes buried and then rediscovered by working in this way, as a composition takes shape through a gradual process of layering and accumulation.’

This article was written by Jane Devery, Curator of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria, and published in Imprint 2012, volume 47 number 2.

Join us for the launch of Imprint‘s special commission print The Problem by Brent Harris, next Thursday at the Fitzroy Town Hall Chambers. 

Like much of his past work, Brent Harris’s latest series The Fall explores ideas that come from thinking about the peculiarities of life and death. It deals with, as Harris has put it, ‘the absurdities of the human condition’.[1] Currently numbering more than forty monotypes, The Fall has developed from the small colourful paintings that have dominated the artist’s output since late 2009, and has arisen in particular from his desire to find a way back to printmaking. Like his recent paintings, these complex images feature enigmatic imagery that suggests a number of possible narratives. Otherworldly figures and forms coalesce in inky pictorial spaces in these strange nocturnal visions. These are confounding images in which the magical and the disquieting coexist: heavenly skies appear alongside fields of skulls and scenes of deluge. In one image, an aging man sinks into a pool of water surrounded by a chorus of floating faces. In another, a feline creature and her shadowy companions engage in rites that remain unexplained.

Since producing his first prints in the late 1980s, Harris has generally pursued printmaking in parallel to his painting practice, often making sets of prints that directly correspond to his paintings. The idea to start working in monotype came to Harris when he saw a large number by Edgar Degas at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in late 2011[2], and his curiosity about some imperfections in Degas’s monotypes provided an unexpected starting point:

‘… when viewing the Degas monotypes I was taken in by miss-printing and strange registrations, so the ‘would-be’ flaws were actually the way into the works for me,’ he recently explained. ‘One work in particular that I saw in Boston was titled The Washbasin 1879–83, a reprinting from the print to make a second impression, a mirror image appears. The second image [was]… paler but it was this impression that Degas would then …work up with coloured pastel. The two impressions of this one mono[type] were hanging side by side in the exhibition, and the first printed showed markings where it appears that the plate had been laid over the back of the print to increase the pressure when printed… There was some miss registration where this plate sat on the back of the print and this small detail I found inspiring.’[3]

Back in Melbourne, Harris set up an old press that had been sitting unused in his studio for several years, and with the help of printmaker Adrian Kellett set about producing his first monotypes. Inspired by Degas, Harris used the dark-field or subtractive technique where the plate is completely covered in printing ink and then wiped back with a cloth so that imagery emerges in the light areas where ink has been removed. Harris soon realised that this process related closely to the way that he was working in gouache. Unlike the carefully executed works he produced between the early 1990s and 2009 — remarkable for their precisely delineated compositions and immaculate uninflected surfaces, Harris’s recent paintings result from a spontaneous working method and are arrived at intuitively. While in the past, Harris would produce numerous working drawings before developing them across a series of finished drawings, prints and paintings, he now resolves an image directly through the process of making the work itself. Imagery emerges, is sometimes buried and then rediscovered by working in this way, as a composition takes shape through a gradual process of layering and accumulation. Unlike the paintings, which are often developed over a number of days or weeks, the monotypes come about much more quickly — several are often printed in a day. Working in this way, without planning or premeditation, has presented a new set of challenges.

‘Clear images may come to the surface, but I find that if an image is too strong too early its presence starts to dominate the process, hindering other possibilities and so must be erased’, Harris recently commented. ‘As a result, many images are found and buried in this way, before the picture starts to declare itself as a whole. I would have to describe this approach as intuitive with many alternate figurations presenting themselves and many recognitions made along the way.’[4]

Biblical themes and religious subjects have often provided the starting point for Harris’s art, but his interest is not religious but psychological and often originates from his knowledge of art history. In 1989, as a young artist, Harris received critical acclaim for the series of minimalist paintings and aquatints The Stations of the Cross, a powerful representation of the fourteen stages of Christ’s journey towards death. In 2009, while artist in residence at the British School at Rome, he planned to revisit the subject and produce a set of drawings that he could later translate into a new set of intaglio prints[5], however he found that he couldn’t ‘hold onto’ the subject. Inspired by a number of frescoes he encountered in Italy, he instead began a series of colourful works in gouache — a transition that lead to the recent shift in his painting. It was not until early 2012 and his embrace of the monotype technique, that Harris found a way back to the subject. For Harris, The Fall connects closely to the 1989 series The Stations. Both deal with the psychology of death. ‘I am very drawn to the subject of “The Fall” in relation to the psychology of the three falls of Christ in the Stations of the Cross …,’ he recently stated, ‘…each time Christ falls his ego is reduced, so as he approaches death the fight against passing over becomes weaker. I am sure this applies to us mere mortals as well! A surrender has to be enacted.’ [6]

Brent Harris is an artist whose work often touches on the unspeakable, and in these latest works he appeals to our deepest anxieties and fears. Magical and terrifying, and utterly compelling, they provoke us to consider the mysteriousness of life and the uncertainty of what might lie beyond.

 

[1] Brent Harris, artist statement provided to author, January 2012.

[2] The exhibition was Degas and the Nude, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 9 October 2011 – 5 February 2012.

[3] Brent Harris, ‘Viewing Works on Paper in the Flesh’, unpublished artist statement, provided to author April 2011.

[4] Brent Harris, artist statement, 2011.

[5] Harris had discussed this possibility with master printer John Loane before departing for Rome. Brent Harris, conversation with the author April 2011.

[6] Brent Harris, artist statement emailed to author, April 2012.