Viewing the survey show of Brent Harris works is a sheer delight – once you find the exhibition space. It’s located on the top floor of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) International, a quiet area of the gallery which Harris transforms into an exciting space that gives the audience a real feel for this shape-shifting exploration of his life experience through form, colour and paint.
The works introduce a cavalcade of weird formations, sliding forms and transformed figures all cleverly composed and artfully arranged. There are subtle prints constructed by patternings of restricted colour that work beautifully, with free-flowing lines and forms. There are more narrative-based works – some with unsettling bunnies - that indirectly deal with the fear and effect of aids in the community and Harris’ own understanding of
the wider world. What is particularly noticeable is the sense of engagement and curious play in the art. These are forms that mean nothing and everything all at the same time. From a purely visual point of view, the works hang together brilliantly – progressing from cloudy charcoals, and colour-spilled dots to smudgy prints.
Harris constantly questions his practice and methods. He is not afraid to bring new elements and influences to invade his work and send him off in uncertain directions. Seeing the survey chronologically, you notice that there is a real cause-and-effect process that influences the work, from the slick-surfaced early works, to the delicate line prints and the slow process of scumbled charcoals and, finally, the assemblaged forms.
Originally from New Zealand, the artist has carved a formidable career in Australia. New Zealand’s great artist, Colin McCahon, was an early source of inspiration, as were the American Abstractionists Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly. More recently, during an Australia Council residency in Italy, the works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Signorelli and Pontormo influenced his work. The three newly painted works near the entrance of the exhibition are small in scale but broadly influenced and inspired by such great masterworks. Of his works Harris has said: “There is no single identifiable subject connecting these works, rather they develop through their making.”
The fact that the NGV continues to devote such spaces and consistent support to contemporary working artists is something to be admired. Hopefully it inspires more forward thinking in major institutions across the country. Many of the works were donated by Harris, which has allowed the NGV to construct such a varied and comprehensive show in this intimate space.
National Gallery of Victoria – NGV International
To August 12, 2012
Mirror #2, 2004, hand-coloured paper pulp with stenciling, flock and silver leaf on handmade paper, 167.6 x 129.5 cm
Swamp (No. 2), 1999, oil on canvas, 274 x 133.7cm
Courtesy the artist and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne