New York

James Harrison


At its best, James Harrison’s work possesses a wonderful edgy psychosis; at its worst, it looks like unedited art brut. Even at their worst, the paintings still show evidence of Harrison working out a powerful inner vision. Although he has been painting for 45 years, Harrison never created a successful career for himself. His ambivalence about exposure is very much inscribed in the introspective quality of the work. Sometimes the paintings seem to be refusing a dialogue with anything but themselves, and this intense turning inward can produce some spectacular effects.

Harrison’s most successful works, such as Take 1, 1960, are marked by a distinctive, intoxicated, Beat esthetic. In this piece, a thick black frame is drawn on a jagged piece of paper: In the middle of the frame is a bull’s eye of three wide, different-colored concentric circles. A misspelling of the work’s title is stenciled in thick letters, and on the bottom on the paper, the word “dog” is written in pencil. Next to it is a word which degenerates into unintelligibility. It is as if by the time he got to writing that word, Harrison had lost his grip on pictorial reality. The piece is covered with unidentifiable stains. It is a beautiful, moving dirty image, reminiscent of early Robert Rauschenberg and an intelligent visual comment on Abstract Expressionism. Unpacking the Pyramid, 1974, dates from the depths of Harrison’s seclusion. It is an unabashedly hallucinatory image. A figure seems to be rising up into some revelatory position, with what look like the branches of trees growing from his arms. All of this is painted in spidery gold lines on a black background, in a quasi-Jungian style. This painting’s literal representation of spirituality is awkward and not fully articulated.

Ego Swallowing, 1973–84, is a drawing of a face made of wide, crazy eyes and a mouth that threatens to engulf the entire image. The tempera and pastel lines look like Cy Twombly’s automatic writing—like obsessive traces of painful gestures. On the back of the image is written in childish hand, “I swallow / My self / I throw up / My self.” The obsessive reworking of this image over a period of almost 10 years is a fascinating operation. E A Poe, 1988, is an extraordinary portrait. Harrison depicts a pasty-faced Poe in bold strokes. One of the subject’s eyes looks crushed, his hair is like a dark waxen helmet. The image has a brutal flatness and also the delicately nuanced quality of a caricature. Harrison illuminates Poe’s brilliance and his reclusiveness in a way that is compelling and infuriating.

The retreat of an artist as talented as Harrison is itself significant. This retrospective tried to fill a void or compensate for Harrison’s obscurity, without taking into account the meaning of the artist’s reclusiveness. It is important to understand this work in the light of the fact that Harrison is an artist who is facing his own self-destructive tendencies, his obsessive and addictive personality, with unflinching honesty. It seems now, however, that the recent exposure has been good for Harrison’s work.

Catherine Liu