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Harris, Brent - 1998.73

Brent Harris

Just a feeling (no.2) 1996
oil on linen
106.5 x 85.2 cm
Purchased 1998

A soft, white sagging form hangs against a fleshy-pink ground. Within it, a round aperture yields onto a gaping, black hole that could be an egg, or an anus, or a giant eye directly returning the viewer’s gaze. Further down the canvas, described by the same clean, black lines, a suggestively phallic protuberance emerges from the swollen, organic shape, hinting at a libidinous energy brimming beneath the surface.

This painting is one of six from the series Just a feeling, made by New Zealand-born Australian contemporary artist Brent Harris in 1996.[1] Remarkable for its pristine, uninflected surface – a quality that has characterised much of the artist’s painting for more than two decades – the work dates from a period when Harris sought new ways to express emotions through line, form and colour. As he has explained, the series title relates to his desire to ‘get feeling into a flat painted surface’ without resorting to painterly mark-making or expressive gesture.[2]

Earlier in his career, Harris produced paintings in geometric abstract style, often in a reduced palette of black and white. But the early 1990s marked a decisive change of direction. In 1992–93, during a six-month residency in Paris, he began to play with the surrealist technique of automatic drawing to tap into his subconscious, producing intuitively generated imagery that was both abject and comic. An exhibition he saw in Paris of the work of American artist Mike Kelley – described by Harris has ‘a wonderful show of saggy, daggy things’[3] – was particularly influential, further encouraging him to develop a bold visual language that employs fields of flat colour and precisely delineated facial and bodily forms. The Just a feeling paintings embody these influences, their playful sexual imagery and emphasis on corporeality as a means of expressing various heightened emotional and psychological states.

Drawing comprises a large part of Harris’s creative output, and it often plays an important role in the process of making a finished painting. Experimentation often takes place through a series of charcoal drawings that are usually (though not always) followed by highly finished coloured-pencil drawings. Harris employed both in the process of making this painting, testing ideas and compositions before translating them into their final medium. As well as Just a feeling (no. 2), six coloured-pencil drawings that correspond to the complete suite of paintings comprising the series are also held in the Monash University Collection.

Jane Devery is Curator, Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

[1] Nos 2, 4 and 6 are in the collection of the Monash University Museum of Art; nos 1, 3 and 5 are in private collections in Australia.

[2] Brent Harris, conversation with the author, 12 November 2016. Harris also lent the title to his survey exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne, in 2006.

[3] Harris quoted in Jane Devery, Brent Harris, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2012, p.11.