In the mid 1980s Brent Harris’ work was characterised by pristine surfaces of subdued geometric abstraction. Since the early 1990s, however, he has painted figurative forms with peculiarly non-representational qualities. Although still rendered in broad blocks of colour, his tonal palette has expanded to include fleshy pink colours and reds, yellows and greens. Even as a measure of sensory association such a shift in colour and content describes Harris’ present interest in the body – as a reference point and as a ‘site of becoming’.
Grotesquerie (no.1) reveals many of his current interests as a painter. It depicts two figures: one with a mask of tall ears and protruding tongue; the other with a flowing mane of yellow hair staring dutifully upwards. About the power dynamic in Grotesquerie (no.1), curator Sarah Thomas has written: ‘Harris speaks of these figures as the Father and the Mother, thus establishing an archetypal familial relationship, one that harbours a frightening and dark secret. In this painting, the Mother is subsumed by the overpowering stature of her male counterpart, gazing up at him with submissive fixity’.1 Certainly the scene is bizarre and dreamlike. While the figurative elements of this and other paintings in this series are clear, the bodily shapes can appear blown out or cropped, distorting the overall interpretation and lending an air of ambiguity. This is how Harris’ work incorporates figurative concerns: he shrouds recognisable elements in a practice which also attends to the affective qualities of colour and form. He uses colour sparingly across the 17 paintings and 10 woodcuts which comprise the total series. There is a suggestive tension between the vast expanses of saturated matt black paint and the hollowing out of positive white space. Yellow, grey and an earthy ochre red are used economically but to dramatic effect.
Other paintings in the series show amorphous forms or bulbous-like shapes extending from the hooded figure’s mouth, or represent possibly corporeal matter running down the canvas. These veils of dripping, gooey fluids which extend across two separate canvases could almost be read as metaphors for the larger machinations of this dark series. Translucent and yet opaque, they represent Harris’ ongoing consideration of that which is present and absent, and that which is revealed and remains hidden – a psychological paradox played out in each painting in a rapport between corporeal elements and their expressive, abstract potential.
1. Sarah Thomas, ‘The passion of Brent Harris’ in ‘Just a feeling: Brent Harris selected works 1987–2005’, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne 2006, p 11
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection Handbook, 2006
oil on linen
274.0 x 120.0 cm
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Anonymous gift 2006
© Brent Harris
Shown in 2 exhibitions
Just a feeling: Brent Harris, selected works 1987 to 2005, The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Parkville, 11 Feb 2006–07 May 2006
Carnivalesque, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 23 Jun 2018–28 Oct 2018
Referenced in 1 publication
Anthony Bond, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Imagining the body', pg.246-289, Sydney, 2006, 264, 265 (colour illus.).