Colin Harrison at the Taylor

  • 30 November 1984
  • test

Colin Harrison's paintings are about mystery. They are packed with any number of inciidental, narrative mysteries: fragments of stories, visual clues, dramas pending or past. But they are also about the mysteries of time, memory, art.
His work has never been more concentrated and accessible than in his current show at the Taylor Gallery. In this .exhibition a rich, homoogenous body of work criss-crosses a well-defined strip of terrain with patient' exactitude. Harrison i~playing with, and searching for, precise confiigurations of a c~rtain repertoire of elements. Simply put, he paints figures in interiors. But his figures, though patently the sum of calculation, measurement and brushstrokes, have the weighty, palpable presence of flesh and blood. And the interiors themselves, with their ordinary and singular paraphernalia, have a heightened, deliiberate sense of presence that has something in common with the unique gravity of a Vermeer.

Harrison is something of an oddity. An English artist, born in Lincolnshire in 1939 (where he now lives), he is therefore of the same generation as, if a little younger than, superstar David Hockney, the gifted figurative draughtsman and painter R.B. Kitaj and many of those other individuals who transformed British art in the sixties. Yet though Harrison has picked up medals and awards along the way, he is no celebrity. Why? Perhaps because, on leaving the Royal College of "Art" in 1964, he was diverted to Ireland, where he took a job as lecturer at the Belfast College of Art. He stayed there until 1973, and while there, and since, has exhibited predominantly in Ireland.

With its myriad references, its striking array of carefully judged figuurative content, Harrison's work invites interpretation. It asks to be read and decoded. His imagery has always had an history cast, functioning in terms of political, cultural, art and personal history. His deliberate, technically exact methodology hints at profound private significance in the things and people depicted, and the work is best when this sense of connection and siggnificance is so emphatic and pervasive that we don't find it necessary to dissentangle the individual strands of the stories that make up any particular picture. The mystery is part of the work's chemistry.

He is a fine, meticulous draughtssman. In fact, at a certain stage it seemed as if he would remain a draughtsman exclusively. But bit by bit his paintings began to look more like paintings and less like coloured drawings, and his latest show is overrwhelmingly painterly. When drawing, he generally preserved, in the finished work, indications of the grid he emmployed for squaring up an image.

The paintings, too, declare themmselves to be paintings. They are beautiifully built of precise strokes and dashes of colour. To a great extent each indiividual mark leaves its own distinct impression, is tonally isolated from its

companions, as if the pictures are constructed of any number of intriicate, interlocking pieces slotted impecccably together. Then, he has allowed a. fading of the image along the borders of the compositions, so that the very substantical spaces he has created peter out disconcertingly and undermine the illusion of depth. The warm red ground that we glimpse around the edges also shows through. the .patterns of brushstrokes. This may sound heavyyhanded but it is not, it is subtly achieved. Furthermore, the paintings in this show are the most' self conntained, the most seamless that he has ever made. There are tricks played with space and time (apart from speciific references to events that occurred many years apart, there is the implicit suggestion that, for example, what h~~ns in a furthu room m~M represent the memory or imagination of a figure who occupies a foreground space) but the image is presented as internally coherent.

The gentle disparities of content fracture the apparently scrupulous logic of Harrison's pictorial space. The collision of the ordinary and the extraaordinary creates a surrealistic fusion of images. But despite the copious references to painters of the Northern Romantic Tradition, Harrison's appaarent inclination towards extravagant gestures is curbed by a very English understatement. Instead of apocalypse, there is a sense of unease; something isn't quite right. Reality has become scrambled, compacted, rather in the manner of Alain Resnais's film "Proviidence", where an ailing novelist jumbles fantasy and reality in his mind, sifting through plots, and the film is his imagination in action.

The mythical, paradigmatic house that he employs has the limitless, protean flexibility of a movie set. He shuffles props at will and impliicates his characters in historical, emootional and erotic dramas. ". . . In Stucken Das Schwert " counterpoints an historical event with a domestic scene. In an' interview, Harrison pointed out the connection. The woman in the far room is the daughter of a man who survived the sinking of the ship that the tableau in the foreeground refers to. Everything in the picture has for Harrison a personal significance and, through his scrupuulous desire to record and understand he lends a meditative weight to normal things, circumstances that we take for granted. His calculation and skill, the delicate disjunctures of his surrealism, the understated passion of his images, all these elements give his work subbstance because he speaks through it to illuminate the ordinary, not to obscure and mystify. This latest exhiibition is, in its quietly spectacular way, his best yet. •