Robbie Harmsworth: On Beauty

What defines beauty? When ascribed to a particular object, the term may refer to balance, proportion and overall presence; combined with the contemplation, communication and transference of abstract concepts and aesthetic pleasure: all things become beautiful. However, this measure is purely subjective and depends on context. To paraphrase Plato; ‘Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’ and therefore resists a universal definition.

Robbie Harmsworth, On Beauty II, 2018, graphite, collage and acrylic on board, 80 x 60cm. Courtesy the artist and fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne

For Robbie Harmsworth, beauty is inherent in nature; a sentiment the now Melbourne-based artist discovered at an early age while growing up near Toolangi in regional Victoria. Situated on top of the Great Dividing Range, the rural township was surrounded by rainforest, allowing the artist to immerse herself in the splendor and diversity under the canopy of native trees, the enticing aromas of wildflowers and the company of colourful wildlife: such as parrots, rosellas, honeyeaters, whistlers and lyrebirds.

‘I was free to create and explore this paradise with little constraint,’ says Harmsworth. ‘Discovering the power of the natural bush, perfumed with native mint and dogwood and the damp pungent odour of rotting logs laden with mosses and miniature ferns… the mists rising over Mount St Leonard, looming sentinel-like over the valleys… my own Mt Olympus – home to mythical gods and goddesses.’

Spanning three decades, Harmsworth’s arts practice is imbued with antiquities and archaic mythologies as well as a fascination with the idea of transience as a defining characteristic of human experience.

In ‘On Beauty’, Harmsworth presents a new series of paintings and works on paper exploring various dimensions of beauty with historical references to sculpture and the human figure. For Harmsworth, the nature of beauty is the apparent variety of forms generated across different times and space: ‘My interest is not in a fleeting glimpse of so called ‘perfection’ but how time treats beauty – why do we find a corroded Greek sculpture of a human figure with missing limbs, or a dying flower, beautiful? Real beauty for me is about life… and life inevitably comes to an end.’

Robbie Harmsworth, On Beauty III, 2019, graphite, collage and acrylic on board, 80 x 60cm. Courtesy the artist and fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne

Harmsworth’s compositions connect past and present. Graphite, monochrome images depict specific facial features and body parts of classical effigies as well as their implied movement or static positions, their distribution of weight or slightly tilted heads, their decorative garments or exposed bodies. Each detail traces an intellectual lineage of ideal beauty – harmony, symmetry, integrity of form – from muscular limbs, the reclining female or the display of social stature seen in headdresses or jewellery. This paragon of beauty instilled life and verve into these works of art, yet Harmsworth’s canvases deconstruct this theory by burying these properties under a contemporary burst of vivid colour: blues, yellows, reds, dabs of secondary pigments and their blends, including a rather fluorescent pink; as well as exaggerated, abstract forms and the continuity of dripping paint. Each figure, or part of, floats amid the kaleidoscopic chaos adding heterogeneity, playfulness and versatility to an otherwise simple beauty.

‘This multi-layered, complex imagery also allows me insight into beauty as something that is to be discovered, that is not perfect. Beauty that reflects the experience of the dark as well as the light,’ says Harmsworth, as overlapping forms, patterns and colour create shadows; or depth. This interaction or dialogue between an object and its surrounds creates multiple elements to the narrative of these works. Here, we introduce the artist’s use of the term ‘palimpsest’, or at least it’s extended meaning: something reused or altered, but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Consequently, the concept of beauty is not only personal or centred in approbation, but changing with time. And so, beauty lives on in the allure of the incomplete, imperfect, and impermanent. Most of all, beauty emerges in the act of being absorbed; and these works exude this energy.

2 to 27 April, 2019