Palmerston North born, Brent Harris’ work is suffused with a murky darkness, unease and melancholia long associated with New Zealand art, cinema and music, but he considers himself an Australian artist. With his first solo exhibition on in Christchurch at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, Towards the Swamp, he has returned. Kiran Dass caught up with the artist and found out why the wait, about dealing with your monsters and why this work matters.
Brent Harris has lived in Melbourne since 1981 aged 31. He’s represented in all the State galleries in Australia, yet only had his first solo show in New Zealand last April: at Wellington’s Robert Heald Gallery.
Yet in his use of stark and solemn blacks and whites Harris acknowledges a connection to New Zealand; that, bushfires aside, there’s a darkness in the New Zealand landscape that isn’t as present in Australia. In his work however, Harris also drops in surprising accents of colour. Blush pinks, buttery yellows and bluish lavenders form drips that turn into figures or bodies in an abstract, melting effect.
While Harris’s work typically explores themes of family, loss, the inner world and demons within it, with flashes of religious iconography, for the past year he has been working with the theme of ‘peaks’. This stems from a fond childhood memory.
“As kids we would stand on our roof at home in Palmerston North and you could see Mount Ngāuruhoe, Taranaki and Ruapehu, you could see all three of them from the house.” Harris also remembers a childhood of swimming in the Manawatu River. “We just floated around. It was probably quite dangerous.”
For Senior Curator at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū Lara Strongman (her last before her new position as Director, Curatorial and Digital at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art) there were resonances.
“Christchurch, of course, like many cities around the world is built on a swamp, and as a place which is currently reinventing itself from the traces of the ruined city, I felt there would be resonances in local culture with Brent’s work, considered through the paradigm of the fertile swamp.”
The exhibition draws heavily on a gift Brent made to Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.
“I’ve been visiting him in his Melbourne studio over the past couple of years,” says Strongman, “and he made pretty much his entire back catalogue of works on paper available to me for the collection. Everything that I asked for, he generously gave me.”
One of Australia’s most accomplished printmakers, Harris has worked in that medium since the late 1980s, and his work is strong in art historical influences – including noticeably here Edvard Munch – while holding its own.
“The great and generous strength of his work,” Strongman writes in the exhibition catalogue, “is that you can see your own life reflected in it, joining a conversation which cuts across place and time, Melbourne and Oslo and London and Christchurch and beyond, describing what it’s like to be a person moving through the world and a body in relation to other bodies.”
Harris always knew he would reconnect with New Zealand, so he held back a series of his prints with the intention of gifting them to ensure a presence in New Zealand.
“I was talking to Justin Paton (Head Curator of International Art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney),” he tells me “and I asked him who would be the best gallery to gift works to, and it seems Christchurch Art Gallery has the best set up.”
When we talk, Harris is in Sydney where his partner the artist Andrew Browne has a show at Yuill/Crowley Gallery. Harris, a cricket and footy enthusiast, has a warm, gentle and engaging manner and is quick to laugh.
Harris was born in Palmerston North in 1956.
“It was a dump! It was pretty bogan. I was pretty bogan. I did an apprenticeship in carpentry. And jeez, we would go to the stock car races on a Saturday night, get pissed drinking Southern Comfort and Coke.”
Harris was married in Matamata aged 19. “My wife’s family owned a dairy farm outside of Matamata. I loved that farm. She started to think we should have a baby so I jumped ship. I knew I was gay. I was divorced at 22.”
He then moved to Auckland where he came out, and worked as a carpenter.
“I actually worked on renovating Gus Fisher’s house in 1979.”
He decided to apply for art school in Melbourne instead of Auckland, where at the time, Elam was the only major art school, as opposed to five different options in Melbourne. He got into the Victorian College of the Arts and has remained in Melbourne ever since.
Harris’s childhood was not without trauma, at the hands of an abusive father. “I had a really shitty father, my father was a monster,” he says. These themes often emerge obliquely in his work.
It was only when his father died at the end of 2016 in his 80s that Harris says he decided the time was right to return to New Zealand for a show. The two had been estranged for 25 years and Harris, understandably, did not attend the funeral.
“I just kept away from him. I hadn’t seen my mother in that time either, until May last year.”
Harris says he did gain his love of nature, landscape and art from his father.
“You know, on Sunday drives we’d always end up at the Govett Brewster, the Sarjeant or National Gallery. He was well-read, my father, and loved nature.”
He says that moving to Melbourne wasn’t some grand gesture of escaping his past. “It was just more like getting on with it once I got to art school. It wasn’t a great escape, I’d already made that.”
In his printing, using a monotype, or dark field technique, Harris starts with a field of black ink on a sheet of perspex. Then on the black surface, he rubs and wipes away with a paper towel with no preconceived idea or what shape or image may arise to the surface. Objects can be used at random to make marks on the ink. Figurations emerge. He refines this process, often through a series of images until he is happy. Harris uses a sequence of paintings or prints to systematically interrogate and finesse an idea.
His series of paintings and prints Grotesquerie (2001-2) with its haunting images of bleeding families, has a foreboding father figure and a faceless, anonymous mother. For this Harris uses automatic drawing (a technique picked up while on an artist’s residency in Paris in 1993) and smudgy charcoals. For the Surrealists, automatic drawing was an effective way of engaging with the subconscious, something that could potentially be terrifying and confronting.
“I’d been finding images in monotypes. It’s all about family. It’s about him. A few months ago I was working on another piece and an image of my father appeared. It was so strongly an image of my father. I thought, ‘fuck! I thought I’d buried him!’
“I wouldn’t say doing Grotesquerie was particularly cathartic. I just kept working on it until it looked like me. I’m in control, not him.”
Harris’s strong use of blacks and whites in his work evokes the work of two artists that have had a profound impact on him: Colin McCahon and American abstract expressionist Barnett Newman. Both artist’s work delve into the sublime, spiritual and also mortality, something echoed in Harris’s own work, particularly in the 1989 series Stations of the Cross.
“Lots of friends of mine were dying young of AIDS in 1989. This was a narrative of being judged this morning and being dead this afternoon. And well, death is starting to look more serious and closer! Thankfully I avoided HIV. It would be nice to have another 20 years, you know, as a mature artist dealing with the same narrative.”
Harris says he is not a religious person. Sometimes during our conversation though, he doesn’t seem so sure.
“I was giving a talk once, and this 20-year-old kid put his hand up and said, ‘you know, it’s OK if you want to be religious!’ I thought that was so sweet. Maybe I am!”
I think of his painting ‘Peaks (The Other Side)’ where two witnesses amid two snow capped mountains look skyward at a figure, perhaps a God of some sort, appearing in the sky.
“Now that’s a religious painting.”
Next up, Harris is showing at the Adelaide Biennale where curator Leigh Robb has set the theme Monster Theatres. Harris will show a combination of existing and new work. Unsurprisingly, his monster is his father. It seems that when he thinks he is done with mining this, there is more to reckon with.
“Yes. I think that is possibly true. Most of my work is searching for meaning. As an artist, I want things to be revealed. I’m 63 years old and I still feel like an emerging artist.”
Brent Harris: Towards the Swamp Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, until 23 February 2020.