Melinda Harper, Untitled 2015, paper collage on screenprint, 9 parts, overall 240 x 360 cm. Printed by Rebecca Mayo at the Dolls House, Melbourne. Courtesy of NKN Gallery, Melbourne. Photograph: Christian Capurro.
Melinda Harper’s work tends to be characterised by dazzling patterns of unrestrained colour in otherwise self-contained, non-objective compositions. Yet some of the work featured in Colour Sensation – the current survey at Heide Museum of Modern Art – seems to contradict these ideas. Sue Cramer’s curation does a good job of illustrating the breadth of Harper’s investigation in a range of different media, including embroidery, glassware, screenprints, and the paintings for which she is famous. Each medium imposes a different approach, and this affords a new angle to broaden our view of the artist’s subject. This is most evident in a work called Untitled 2015: a multi-part screenprint with collage on paper, made in collaboration with Rebecca Mayo at the Dolls House printing studio. The work stands apart because it is very large with a comparatively restrained palette, and the shapes from which it is composed act differently to those in Harper’s iconic paintings. It is a work suffused with peculiarities that are partly attributable to the screenprinting process. Through its lens a different perspective is afforded on Harper’s oeuvre.
As a painter I have some insight into the decisions and processes that guide Harper’s works on canvas, but this is not so with screenprinting. I was lucky to glimpse the creation of Untitled 2015 one afternoon at the Doll’s House studio. It was most informative to witness Rebecca Mayo’s role in the production of this work. There was no doubt Harper directed the process by a certain preconceived plan, but it was also clear she was prompted by Mayo’s expertise with the medium. Together they made decisions based on the potentials and limits of the screenprinting process, devising ways to translate the subject of the paintings into the language of screenprinting. Earlier prints in Colour Sensation wrestle at transcribing the optical features of Harper’s paintings, whereas Untitled 2015 interprets the content in an entirely new way.
There are only a handful of colours in this print, and they are divided across cells that are not facets of a pattern but individual objects. There is a manageable amount of these upon the picture plane, in contrast to the atomised storm we have come to expect of the paintings. There is less colour than in the paintings but more texture: velvety blacks, pink grids, metallic silver and blue fields of decalcomania. These textures seem to substitute the function of colour by signalling constitutive contrasts. This offers a different view on the role of colour in Harper’s work: that it is not necessarily deployed for its own sensational sake but to identify individual components of the picture. Some of the textures are impressions that index external objects that have been pressed against the paper, signalling the collage technique that informs the organisational logic of this picture. This is emphasised by large portions of blank paper that establish figure and ground relations that are rarely intelligible in Harper’s paintings. Shapes are scattered upon this ground like cards on a table, overlapping rather than butting up to each another. They leap between adjacent sheets of paper without losing their identity, while other shapes traverse the edges of the picture plane into space beyond the visible image.
Untitled 2015 is not contained by its material boundaries, and this is amplified by the massive scale and placement of the work. Seen from a distance it fills the entire entrance to the smaller gallery in which is it displayed. With the edges of the work thus occluded the compositional logic can spread indefinitely outwards. Using this work as a compass I can recognise the same ideas amidst the hail of chromatic excess that characterise the paintings. The distance afforded by the screenprinting process – both in the indexicality it asserts and the mediation offered by Rebecca Mayo – situates Harper’s practice as more than just colouring activity on the surface: it is a performance of organisational concepts within the deep structure of the image. Her genius is not in subdividing a field to create a pattern of colours, but in wrangling a multitude of contingent objects to radiate a collective will.