Bubbles, Just a feeling, Sleep
The twenty small paintings titled 'Sleep 1-20', shown at Kaliman Gallery in Sydney in November 2003, were painted from January to October that year in the order they are numbered. They were painted directly onto canvas over a great deal of preliminary charcoal drawing, much of which can still be seen beneath the thin layers of paint. Brent Harris's investment in his subject, 'Sleep', or perhaps troubled dreaming, is clear. Not obvious, however, are the various stages through which many of these images passed.
Harris's only other extended series of small paintings, the thirty works titled Painting no. 1
to Painting no. 30
of 1990-91, which the artist dubbed 'Bubbles' - were also designed on the canvas in charcoal and during painting. The charcoal can be seen beneath the immaculate surface of the works, but only on close observation under raking light. These paintings have a subject and a meaning that the artist has only recently allowed to emerge.
The larger pink and cream paintings of 1996, 'Just a Feeling I-IV', are breakthrough paintings, a turning point in Harris's journey from abstraction to his realisation that he had the means to paint works based on his emotional and familial life.
Until now the 'Bubble' works have been seen as psychologically neutral, simple abstractions - not revealing the tension the artist felt during their execution. Their origin in the memory of a boyhood experience has only emerged in recent discussion. A recurring nightmare of the eight- or nine-year-old Harris contained the fearful image of a figure moving in the dark outside his bedroom window. Harris now gives this dream a Freudian reading as a childhood death anxiety. Indeed, there was probably nothing outside his window to terrify him other than the movement of rippling light.
Harris realised that 'work was now going its own way'. He groped towards the meaning of this, but only partly understood the internal emotional sources for the imagery. 'The painting was waiting for me. They were my forms'. There is nothing squeamish about them. The imagery is sexual, male and female, without illustrating any particular situation. Amorphous shapes emerged as partial objects and body parts, each of which he allowed a life of its own. He made large coloured pencil drawings for the series, building up the colour as delicately as if he were touching a body, or an extension of his own. The drawings marked the end of Harris's denial and reticence to tap into his feelings. However, it was not until 2003 that he would comment that this was the first time his painting ever felt right and that, importantly, the paintings were distinctly his own.
Despite the attraction of the pink paint, the luxurious paint surface and the absurd humour of the series, there is a sense of threat to the works. They could almost be plump targets set for destruction from the rifle bore. James Mollison This article appears in excerpted form. You can read this article in full in the Spring 2004 issue of Art & Australia.
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