‘Dreamer’ is the title of an exhibition of new paintings by Brent Harris (at Tolarno Galleries until 4 April). The word also appears in the titles of several works - variously The Dream, Dreamer, Dreamer (Green) and their studies. Other paintings in the show have titles like Embark, The Other Side and Mirror, all suggestive of journeys into the psyche. The paintings themselves are dream-like: strange clammy visions, figures emerging from abstract clouds of colour, fragments of unlikely narratives. Harris also talks about slowly summoning the subjects up out of the depths of the paint, as if he were trying to recall some dim nightmare or a long-forgotten memory. So you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Dreamer’ was about, well, dreams.
Harris points to a figure slumbering in the foreground of Dreamer (2014) and says that’s where the title comes from. He shrugs. That’s it. The paintings aren't really about anything in particular. Instead they're experiments in pure, spontaneous creation and a performance of technical virtuosity.
“I start by making marks on the board with gouache, putting it on and wiping it off again,” Harris explains, “…searching for the imagery to come to the surface.” He repeats this process over and over again: stopping and starting, making marks, wiping them off, leaving what feels right and removing what doesn't. Gradually details start to reveal themselves in the layers, says Harris, and he begins to notice faces and figures “coming up out of the paint”. For the show at Tolarno, the initial, smaller works of gouache on board then became studies for much larger oil paintings, where the process of discovery continued. Whatever might have emerged in the way of figures or a narrative came later, he says, the subject matter was the end point not the starting point.
You can see this spontaneous, intuitive technique (and the confident swagger that such a technique demands) very clearly in the finished paintings. There are patches of bare linen and charcoal lines still visible in places. Parts of the canvas seem alternately overworked or underworked. All of them show signs of erasure, but yet they all feel somehow right. The effect is unsettling, as if you’re seeing something that you're not sure is really meant to be there. As we walk around the gallery, Harris draws my attention to different forms and figures – many, many more than I had initially noticed. Often they’re hidden within each other. The sway of a tree becomes the curve of a jaw; a neck and collarbone here become a nose and lips in reverse.
Harris might insist that the paintings aren't about his dreams or the recesses of his unconscious, but they’re still the product of them. As he points out details to me – all those faces and features that seemingly just “came up out of the paint” – Harris repeatedly calls them stupid or silly. “Look how many faces there are on that stupid thing” or “I saw that absurd face and thought what the hell?” He sounds surprised and amused, as if the paint itself had presented Harris with a ridiculous visual conundrum that he then felt compelled to resolve. Of course the paint – inanimate, oily pigment that it is – did no such thing. Rather Harris has been challenging himself with absurd visual puzzles of his own (unconscious) making. At 58 years of age, on the back of an impressive 35 year practice and with “a head stuffed full of art history”, Harris is evidently prepared for whatever he might throw at himself.
>> 19 February 2015
GO SEE IT:
12 February - 4 April, 2015
Level 4, 104 Exhibition St, Melbourne
Tues - Fri 10am - 5pm | Sat 1pm - 5pm