Exploring Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s Newest Exhibition
It’s seven thirty pm on a Tuesday night and I’m standing face to face with a series of photopolymer gravure and screenprints entitled ‘The Other Side.’ The prints, from which Auckland Art Gallery’s newest exhibition takes its name, are created using a technique called ‘dark field,’ in which a printing plate covered in black ink is wiped until an image appears in the light areas. It’s a creative process that allows the artist to access their subconscious, creating in an almost automated manner. Standing before these pieces, it becomes apparent that Brent Harris’ subconscious is brilliant, though notably dark. In what my exhibition accomplice described as being similar to what her dreams (or rather nightmares) look like, clusters of bodies seem to emerge from the darkness, their twisted faces just discernible in the amalgamation of figures. Much like the Rorschach, every viewer will see something different; each piece holds multitudes and allows for endless interpretations of the subject matter. Just as Harris was able to access his subconscious during the creation process, his work encourages viewers to do the same.
The Other Side, shown at Auckland Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, is the first major survey of Harris’ work held in New Zealand and features pieces spanning his entire 40-year career. After moving to Melbourne in 1981 to study at the Victorian College of Arts, the artist has exhibited mostly across the ditch, where he is regarded as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists. Harris’ interest in mortality, spirituality, familial relationships and transcendence come to a head in this exhibition, allowing viewers a glimpse into the mind of one of Aotearoa’s greatest contemporary artists.
Harris sees death as an extension of the self, rather than an ending. His work toys with the idea of the afterlife, embedding notions of finality with a sense of potentiality. Two interpretations of Christ’s crucifixion adorn the walls of the gallery; each created in an entirely different style. The first is suggestive of McCahon, with stark white/black contrasts and bold lines, while the second is more reminiscent of Harris’ recognisable, almost cartoonish, abstracted style. Washes of dreamy colours and the repeated inclusion of large cartoonish eyes subvert the finality of death and place the subject matter in an almost transcendent realm.
As you walk through the gallery, poignant reflections of Harris’ turbulent childhood also crop up repeatedly. After leaving for Australia, Harris only returned to Aotearoa following the death of his abusive father. The artist has always been outspoken about the nature of his paternal relationship and deems it a key factor for keeping him out of the country. His piece, I Weep My Mother’s Breasts (1996), represents a time the artist was criticised by his father for nuzzling his mother’s breasts as a child; the chastisement ultimately ended what was an easygoing and comforting relationship with his mother. The work features a generic man, crying, a breast falling from each eye. The mirrored effect denotes a sense of critical self-assessment, as if his father’s words had taken root in the artist’s brain. Other pieces depict a shadowy figure looming over representations of Brent and his mother.
This expertly curated exhibition balances a sense of consistency and development, showing both where the artist came from and the direction he is heading. Harris’ unique approach to melancholic subject matter creates universally relatable works; an enjoyable means to ponder the complexities of the human experience.
Brent Harris: The Other Side runs from now until September at Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tāmaki
Artwork Credits: LEFT: Brent Harris, Actaeon, 2021, oil on linen, on loan from Stuart McKenzie, Miranda Harcourt & Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Wellington, © the artisT // CENTER: Brent Harris, I Weep My Mothers Breasts, 1996, oil on linen, on loan from the artist, Melbourne, © the artist // RIGHT: Brent Harris, The Other Side #1, 2016-2017, photopolymer gravure with screenprints, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Patricia Mason and Paul Walker, 2019, © the artist