Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Visually simple, mentally complex

Michael Harrison: Example of the Ravens
Ivan Anthony
16 July - 9 August 2008

Some artists are never totally committed to a completion of a work, even if the item in question has been signed or exhibited. Even if a collector has purchased it and installed it in their home, they still might call round and just add (or remove) a little something. The work is never far from their thoughts, especially if it is owned by a friend or somebody who lives close by.

The artist once known as Merylyn Tweedie used to be famous for occasionally changing collages that collector friends owned. And in this show at Ivan Anthony’s are several Michael Harrison paintings that have been shown in earlier stages years ago, but now are different. He obviously hasn’t wanted to let go. To forget them and walk away.

There are nine acrylic works on paper in Example of the Ravens, all looking unnervingly like watercolour but not. I used to only prefer the Harrison works that focussed on positive/negative shape relationships – a carry-over from my deep affection for Gordon Walters paintings - but now I’ve changed. I’ve grown fond of his other stuff too.

Harrison’s images exude incredible sensitivity, by virtue of their ultra-delicate washes of very thin colour, faint pencil lines and precise placement of symbolic images. That can be a drawback. Like Reichsmarschall Gōring who once said "Whenever I hear the word ‘Culture’ I want to reach for my revolver,” one can sometimes bristle at too much sensitivity. It can be cloying, and make you long for something raucous and deliciously vulgar. A fistful of salt chucked into the bowl of sugar.

These works are incredibly romantic in the way they depict women. As images of besotted adoration they intrigue because of a sense of worship that seems Victorian. Yet Harrison (thank God) is more complicated than that. Hints of sarcasm and mistrust creep in.

Enlist shows a man saluting his overbearing, controlling lover, trying to figure out how to break free. Prediction has another fellow contemplating the dynamics of his relationship, represented by an embracing couple in the sky. They are enclosed in a silhouette that could be a woman’s head with long hair and flouncing curls. It also could be a skull and crossbones. Crows and a leopard-faced gargoyle hover ominously nearby.

Such images of healthy cynicism keep Harrison’s work fresh and not soppy like it might at first seem. His use of soft greys and mottled blues bring a discreetly moody atmosphere to his practice. Images on your computer screen won’t capture it though. You need to see these works directly in the gallery to enjoy their intimate scale and painted surface.

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