Brent Harris

Brent Harris meets me in the narrow, cobbled, Collingwood laneway known as Glasshouse Road. I am about to spend two hours criss-crossing artistic boundaries from the early Renaissance to the flawed, eccentric geniuses of Franz West, and Martin Kippenberger. Underneath this lies not just the darkness, and light of Colin McCahon, but personal family trauma worked through over the decades in series-specific painterly projects.

Brent Harris’ studio is adjacent to Gertrude Glasshouse, the experimental satellite venue of Gertrude Contemporary. Apart from chance meetings at Tolarno Galleries openings, we haven’t really had much chance to talk since we were both doing residencies at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, in 1994. We climb the stairs to his studio – and he points out the adjoining ground floor studio of his partner, Andrew Browne. This year going into next is an incredibly busy one for this artist, and as we ascend he lists major shows in Auckland Art Gallery, TarraWarra Museum of Art, The Art Gallery of South Australia, and Robert Heald Gallery in Wellington.

The studio is awash with light. Brushes, paint, empty anchovy and tuna tins as palettes. There is no shortage of art books and postcards, many of which I covet. And on the walls, canvases of all sizes in various stages of progress and completion. By the time I leave, I understand far better the complexity and multi-layered references contained within these paintings and prints.

Brent Harris was born in Palmerston North, New Zealand in 1956. He was married at nineteen, divorced at twenty-two. He moved to Auckland initially, thinking he would study art there. Friends advised Melbourne instead, with advice along the lines of “you’ll have five very different art schools to choose from.” He chose the Victorian College of the Arts. They chose him. And in 1982 he began his studies. In those days, the art school occupied the same footprint as the old National Gallery of Victoria, students had unfettered access to the prints and drawings department. As he notes in a video accessible on the Auckland Art Gallery website, “Munch was a small part of what was on offer, but for me that was a really big part. The work we’re looking at is Towards the Forest. I really like the embrace of the two figures, and the fact they are heading into the forest. They are heading into the unknown. It was Munch’s way of being able to engage with psychological issues: loss, tenderness, jealousy.”

Back in the studio, we dive straight into the painting he is currently working on. Enthusiastically, he shows me a postcard of Piero della Francesca’s 1464 Il sogno di Constantino (The dream of Constantino) from the Basilica in Arezzo. The forms of the tent, in the original, have morphed into snowy mountain peaks in Brent’s work. And what of Brent’s figure, lying prone on the ground, forehead cradled against bended elbow, the arm still just a pencil outline awaiting paint? He grabs a copy of the Tate gallery’s monograph on Austrian artist Franz West, dead too soon at sixty-five. Quickly thumbing through it, he pulls open a page with West crashed out on a bed, face down, below an open window – as if too fatigued with life to make Yves Klein’s leap into the void. He is now memorialised alongside Piero.

“I have been drawn to the theme of the dream for as long as I can remember,” Brent tells me. “And to the artists through time who refer to the dream state – long before we started talking about ‘the subconscious.’ There was Giotto, Piero della Francesca, Goya, Redon, Matisse . . . In 2003, I made a series of small paintings titled Sleep. In 2015 my show at Tolarno Galleries was titled Dreamer. The first appearance of my tracing of a photo of the sleeping Franz West was in 2014. It all gets mashed up with time. The Piero tents have always thrown me back into the New Zealand landscape. The looking into nature, looking out beyond the self. In the Piero from the Arezzo fresco, one looks out above, and beyond the dreaming Constanino . . . to the mountains.”

So many other great artists have loaned their influences to Brent’s creations: Louise Bourgeois (whom he met in late 1989) was, with hindsight, responsible for him moving on from his Stations of the Cross geometric imagery with its heavy undertones of Colin McCahon, to becoming at the same time inwardly visceral and outwardly sensual, and Munch, whose jigsaw puzzle technique of printmaking Brent has emulated, “It’s the quickest way possible of making a colour print,” (and you can watch him doing this in the afore-mentioned video) and Edgar Degas. Brent points out that Degas’ “dark field technique” would originally have been done on a copper plate, but nowadays can be made using Perspex. “Once I’ve created this black field, I can work into it with a paper towel, and I’ve no idea, as I’m doing it, where it’s going to go.”

Dr. Chris McAuliffe sums up the artist’s modus operandi well when he writes, “Brent Harris is an artist who has often worked programmatically, using a sequence of paintings or prints to systematically hunt down an idea, a form, or a quality of his medium.”

Brent’s “dark field” became more visible, if psychologically more opaque, in the Grotesquerie series of paintings. To me, these are iconic images – unforgettable, haunting – in the same way as the Mona Lisa, or Munch’s painting popularly known as The Scream, and any number of Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly portraits. Of his own abusive father, and the release caused by his death, he tells me, “The dead father was the release. I didn’t go to the funeral. Until last May I hadn’t seen my mother for twenty-five years. I hadn’t spoken to my father for twenty-five years. There weren’t any tears at the time, but there’s been tears since . . . I just think, what a stupid man he was.”

“When did all this surface in your work?” I ask.

“From 1996 I started to draw more of my personal psychology into my work, this was empowered by my engagement with Louise Bourgeois, and her ability to image her psychological states.”

Grotesquerie is a series of drawings, prints, and twenty-six paintings made over an eight-year period. The subject images family trauma. “This series centres around a domineering, and abusive Father. He most often appears masked, as with this horned creature in Grotesquerie no. 3. He is imaged here with the mother, mute and not seeing, he is breathing in or out through his mouth his sexual desire, a form both breast and scrotum-like, at once both male and female.”

At this point, I remember one of his most memorable paintings, I weep my mother’s breasts, 1996, where sac-like mammaries distend from the twin eyes of a double self-portrait. Curator Bala Starr has commented that unusually this is not part of any series, “this is a one-off.”

We move across to the computer screen, and view the astonishing hang of the Auckland show, room by room by computer click. We stop at the last one in the Grotesquerie series, no. 20.

Some have seen these works as “cartoonish” – as in popular TV cartoons for both children and adults. But when I raise the question he replies, “I have never been drawn to comics, but many of my favourite artists have: Philip Guston, John Wesley, and many of the Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein. I know my paintings often look cartoon-like in their formal language, and perhaps they are my own ‘cartoon making.’ The idea that a comic should be comical is a bit odd, as most are driven by the depiction of absurd situations that reflect the absurd, and often abject nature of human endeavour.”

Absurdity and strange juxtapositions are evident in two series of works referenced on his studio walls. In one, there is an apron rimmed with pansies. He told Jane Devery, in March 2023, “In 1992, as I was walking down Brunswick Street in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Fitzroy, a man coming towards me spat out his abuse, calling me a ‘fucking pansy.’’’

“The pansies in the painting,” Devery explains, “were taken from Slip Covered Armchair, 1986–87, by Robert Gober, an artist whose work often plays with household objects and explores questions of sexuality. The idea for the apron form came from The Large Cloth of Abuse, 1968, a painting by Sigmar Polke that is festooned with swearwords in German. Harris had seen an image of Polke wearing the work like a cloak and was attracted to the notion of turning an applied insult into a protective garment.”

Another series of works plump with both absurdity and diverse cultural references concerns Ned Kelly’s off-sider Steven Hart and the anecdote about how he dressed as a woman and rode side-saddle in order to evade the police. Later, he died in the shoot-out at Glenrowan. Sidney Nolan, of course, memorialised this, and Brent Harris appropriated the floral pattern dress from that painting, transforming the pattern into polka dots. But as Helen Hughes points out, opposite the polka dot dress, in Brent’s work “is a pink, kinked worm-like figure, subtly kowtowing. Weighted by a large cement-grey boot (reminiscent of Guston’s severed foot motif) it sports a dubious disguise: a brown hat and giant black moustache. This figure is also self-illuminating. Its hat doubles as a lampshade and the spikes of yellow hair as radiant light, recalling Kippenberger’s wobbly lampposts, like Street Lamp for Drunks of 1988.”

Many other fine writers and curators have penned essays on Brent Harris that collectively give a fabulously cubist view of his life and work. Amongst these are James Mollison, Anthony Fitzgerald, Robert Cook, Maria Zagala, Steven Miller, Ashley Crawford.

Francis McWhannell, in his recent catalogue essay, takes us back to the years before the Grotesquerie series, and of course long before the recent Covid crisis, when another epidemic held our attention, and fed our nightmares. He quotes the artist telling him, “I have never really identified as a gay artist. I have lived in fairly tolerant countries and times. But the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s was a terrifying, and sad time for most gay people. I was not involved in political activism around the AIDS crisis, but was very active in care teams early on when things were at their worst. Around this time, I made my first series of The Stations of the Cross, and I approached the subject as a readymade narrative for a young person going to an early death: judged this morning, dead this afternoon.”

And so we face religion. A particularly Christian religion with its shades of intense darks, and brilliant whites, beloved by McCahon. In a recent interview Devery, who curated the current Auckland exhibition, asks if Brent considers himself religious? The answer is both hilarious and illuminating. Brent replies: “No, I don’t think so. I was giving a talk to some students at RMIT University a few years ago, and I was talking about The Stations of the Cross and other related works of mine with religious subjects. I repeated myself several times stating ‘I am not Religious.’ One of the students spoke up and said, ‘Brent, It’s OK if you want to be religious.’ I do now reserve the right to be religious.”

Images courtesy of the artist, Auckland Art Gallery, Auckland, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, Tolarno Galleries Melbourne, TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, and Germanos Collection
This article was originally published in Artist Profile, issue 64 

Surrender & Catch: The Art of Brent Harris 
2 December 2023 – 11 March 2024 
TarraWarra Museum of Art, Victoria 

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