New directions: Brent Harris - Art Collector

Issue 55, January - March 2011

This profile appeared in the "New directions" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2011"

For quite some time recognising a Brent Harris work was a straightforward affair. They were typically tight, graphic works of strangely mutated forms rendered with a muted palette. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, in 2008 Harris presented a group of 36 drawings rendered in harsh charcoal lines and the direct result of old fashioned life drawing with a nude model. And then, in 2010, he assailed his audience with yet another radical shift, a series of brightly coloured, almost expressionistic canvases of intimate scale. The Brent Harris of minimalist colour had well and truly vanished.

The newest works, which Harris dubbed the Deluge series, were the direct result of both his return to life drawing and a timely residency at the Australia Council studio in Rome. For some time he had struggled to integrate his drawing practice into his painting and by the end of 2009 he had found a way.

“A combination of things helped bring about this shift that is now obvious in these new small panels,” Harris says. “Working in a smaller studio and wanting to develop ideas quickly encouraged me to scale down. Gouache seemed an easy clean alternative to oils and, in light of all the frescos I was seeing in Italy, quite appropriate to be using a water-based medium quite close to fresco.”

In terms of his radical shift to vibrant colouration, Harris says: “Just take a look at the Sistine ceiling for the broadest and most stunning palette. I made many visits to the chapel for both the ceiling, its colour and the Last Judgement for its dynamic, piled up, tumbling and falling figure composition.”

Harris admits to being unsure how such a dramatic shift would be perceived. “I did have enormous doubts about how this shift would be received, but collectors and other artists have been very positive. I didn’t see this shift as a strategy; it really has been brewing for a couple of years. I am not feeling that I have achieved more than a new beginning at this point. Going into the studio these days seems full of new possibilities.”

“My paintings and drawings up to the Deluge series have been generated through line; this sensuous line has been my emotional connection to space – form – subject, the body. The whole surface or composition has to somehow come forward at the same time it’s a curious business, this is the biggest shift for me, normally all this would happen off the canvas in drawings, now there are no study drawings for these works, its all in the painting.”

In some respects Harris’s latest works mark a return to his beginnings. As a student in the early 1980s Harris would go drawing with Peter Booth in the botanical gardens. “Working in pastels, these things looked like a mixture between Peter’s work and early Jackson Pollock, they were very colourful, a lot of colour and a lot of black. There is a comparison to be made between these early drawings and the way these new works are coming about. The obvious difference is that things are a lot more complex now; 25 years later, my visual library is so much richer, my psychological engagement with life is obviously dealing with the joy of ageing itself now. There is a different complexion to life, and I think some of these thoughts and feelings come through unexpectedly for me in the new work.”

Ashley Crawford

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