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Brent HARRIS (b.1956)

Brent Harris was born on 4 October 1956 in Palmerston North, Manawatu-Wanganui, New Zealand. He migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1981. Over more than three decades of work, Harris has built a highly successful career as an artist and printmaker; he is widely recognised in Australia, New Zealand an internationally. Indeed, in launching a Brent Harris show in 2012, comprising 80 National Gallery of Victoria and private collection works, Dr Gerard Vaughan, then NGV Director characterised Harris, “…as one of Australia’s most celebrated artists.”*

In terms of style, Brent Harris is recognised both for his changing oeuvre and his moody and evocative subject matter. His work has constantly evolved as Harris has challenged himself in subject matter, style, and execution. Influences include a strong interest in art history, and engagement with the work of other artists – from Michelangelo to Mike Kelley with an increasing focus on personal memories and feelings.

A number of recurring themes and motifs can be seen in his paintings, prints and drawings with his work demonstrating a journey through the role of drawing and printmaking and their relationship to his painting practice.

 In a review of his work in 2012, it was said to offer, “… an opportunity to consider connections that emerge between works that in some cases have been produced many years apart. …Fear, doubt, death, sexuality, identity, the body, religion and spirituality are themes that he has returned to throughout a rich and complex oeuvre – ideas that he has filtered through haunting imagery that is often as confronting as it is seductive. …These have provided him with powerful catalysts for artistic expression.”**

Harris has always worked as an artist. He began a Diploma of Art and Design from Footscray College of TAFE in Melbourne in 1981 and then from 1982 to 1984 he completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at the Victorian College of the Arts, also in Melbourne.  He has exhibited extensively in Australia since 1985 with his early works influenced by the paintings of fellow New Zealander Colin McCahon, and the seminal American abstractionist Barnett Newman.

Harris's 1989 series "Stations" pays particular homage to both Newman and McCahon. Newman's "The Stations of the Cross" paintings of 1958 are the obvious point of reference for Harris's "Stations" - however it is to McCahon that he looks for his visual and symbolic iconography. The "Stations" paintings show an early inkling of a sense of absurdity which will become such an important ingredient in Harris's later oeuvre.

As Harris himself has said of his approaches: "The absurd gets me closer to an intensity of sensation. ...The sensation of being in a body…the sensation is only ever forming/transforming, never whole. This is why my images are nearly always cropped, part objects. They can never fully develop a meaning...just like life"***

Into the 90's, after the "Stations" series of the late 80's, Harris became disillusioned with Geometric Abstraction...."I was arguing someone else's argument"**. He developed an interest in the old surrealist technique of automatic drawing to try to unleash a path beyond abstraction - this led in turn to a tenuous edging towards figuration. With his "Appalling Moment" series of 1994 we see the introduction of colour, figuration and curves working together in a ..."brazen declaration of artistic licence and newly found confidence".***

Harris has always worked in series, where he will produce a body of work which explores and expounds on his interests at the time. "Just a Feeling" 1996 is one such series. Six paintings marked by a suggestive sexuality expressed through colour, shape and context.

"The Untimely" 1997 - a series of ten paintings - shapes more ambiguous, a lineal stretching across the canvas; with some of the paintings exploring facial characteristics and the notion of "the gaze".

Series such as "Swamp" 1999-2000, "Grotesquerie" 2001-2002, and "Plato's Cave" 2005 continue to explore ambiguity and absurdity in painterly expression.

Having moved from abstraction towards figuration in the early 1990's Harris has developed a visual language that encompasses the amorphous realm between the two.

More recent bodies of work include "Deities"2006, "Borrowed Plumage"2007, "Heads"2007, "Deluge"2008, "Surrender and Catch"2010, "The Other Side"2015-2017, and "The Small Sword"2017. Within all of these series Harris continues to plunder art history and religiosity to build his own particular brand of contemporary art. As noted by Chris McAuliffe: "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. With this persistence comes a willingness to learn, to explore, to renew".****

Off his own work Harris says:  "My paintings develop pictorially through their making. The space in my pictures does not follow any logical sense of perspective. Similarly, the scale of forms or figurative elements and their relationship to one another are also generally free of logic. Absurdity is often a welcome driver of my composition .......My approach is intuitive, and I follow imagery as it comes to the surface.......My head...stuffed full of art historical references, both old and new, if a strong figurative composition takes hold I will follow it, sometimes with reference to other works. I try not to censor this when it happens, in the hope of generating new compositions and meanings"*****

Despite his changing approaches, Harris’s work is often mysterious yet at the same time, contemporary. By way of example his solo show, “The Face”, which was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004, was described by Peter Hill as “of-its-time yet strangely out-of-time”.

Brent Harris has held many exhibitions including solo shows at the Ian Potter Museum of Art (Just a Feeling: Brent Harris, Selected works 1987-2005) 2006; The Art Gallery of Western Australia (swamp op) 2006; the Singapore Tyler Print Institute 2005; and the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia (That Uncertain Feeling) 1996. He has also been included in dozens of group exhibitions - his work much studied and written about.

Harris was an Artist in Residence at 200 Gertrude Street Inc. Gertrude Street Artists’ Spaces, Melbourne in 1987 to 1989; awarded a Grant by the Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council in 1988 and again in 1997; In residency at Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (Visual Arts/Craft Board of the Australia Council and Power Institute, the University of Sydney) 1993 to 94; in residency at Nagasawa Art Park, Japan in 1999; in residency, at Singapore Tyler Print Institute 2004; and in residency in Rome, Australia Council (Oct – 2009 through Jan 2010) 2008.

Brent Harris is included in most important public collections in Australia as well as the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, London; the Chartwell Collection, Auckland; and the Te Manawa collection, Palmerston North, New Zealand. In Australia, his work is held by Artbank Collection; Art Gallery of Ballarat, Victoria; Art Gallery of New South Wales Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia; Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria; Edith Cowan University Art Collection, Perth; Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Victoria; National Portrait Gallery, Canberra ACT; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane Queensland; Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart Tasmania; Tarrawarra Museum of Art Collection, Yarra Glen, Victoria.

* National Gallery of Victoria exhibition notes

** Ibid NGV

*** Brent Harris, notebook, 2005, cited in catalogue essay: Sarah Thomas, '"Just a Feeling", Brent Harris, Selected Works 1987-2005', Ian Potter Museum of Art, 2006.

by Wordmakers 2018.

 

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