Washington D.C.

John Harne

Gallery K

Each of John Harne’s 25 small oil paintings in this show features his signature “Angry Little Man” figure. This gruff, cartoonlike character with stubble, arched eyebrows, clenched teeth, and a saw-tooth flattop hairdo looks like a cross between Bart Simpson and a Jim Nutt figure.

Harne introduced his protagonist almost a decade ago as a stand-in, one suspects, for himself—a contemporary man defiantly at odds with the world around him. Nearly overwhelmed in the face of society in Harne’s earlier works, this “Angry Little Man” recalled Peter Finch in the movie Network, railing, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

In these recent paintings, Harne troubles over traditional questions of good and evil, attempting to raise anew fundamental moral issues that seem to have lost all relevance today. Self-taught but hardly a naïf, Harne achieves this by recasting his “Angry Little Man” figure as various heroes and villains in scenes borrowed from literary classics that deal with Christian ethical themes. Relevant passages from these texts are inscribed on his frames so that they resonate within his dark, dramatically lit tableaux, acting as “voice overlays”—sometimes the words seem to be those of the protagonist, sometimes those of an unknown narrator.

The earliest series exhibited contains ten illustrations of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678. In these works, the “Angry Little Man” adopts the role of Christian, Bunyan’s pilgrim in search of salvation. In Man in an Iron Cage, 1991, Christian, who stands in the left foreground cropped at the torso by the frame, spies a shadowy figure, evidently despairing because he has succumbed to worldly lusts. In Valley of the Shadow, 1991, Christian is collaged into the upper-right corner and looks down into a long, dark valley divided vertically by a bright Barnett Newman-like yellow stripe. The enframing quotation describes the Valley of the Shadow of Death from the 23rd Psalm.

The remainder of the works in the exhibition, save one, are based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, 1667—the story of Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven and the fall of Adam and Eve. Like an Autumnal Star, 1991, shows the winged figure of Lucifer (with bright red face and dwarflike body) plummeting to hell. Seen against a golden sky, Lucifer/Satan (played by the “Angry Little Man”) appears in various other scenes plotting against God and man. In The First Grand Thief, 1991, he is shown with a golden head and a red body flying over the walls of the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge is visible on a background hill, silhouetted against a glowing sky.

One can detect the influence of Albert Pinkham Ryder in the heavy paint texture, dark colors, and simplified forms of the “Milton series.” These works, in which the “Angry Little Man” sheds much of his modern identity to adopt the role of Satan, also share something of the charming moralizing character of Ryder’s paintings. The “Bunyan series,” by contrast, is less charming but more provocative. Because the “Angry Little Man” retains his modern identity, the focus of this series becomes not simply Christian morality, but the relationship of this morality to modern existence. In contrast to the contemporary consciousness represented by the “Angry Little Man,” the quotations on the frames seem arcane. By standing apart—by functioning more as a spectator than as a participant in these scenes—he encourages scrutiny of the religious dogma, which, in Bunyan’s day, justified Christian’s abandonment of his wife and children in quest of his own salvation. By showing the incompatibility of religious dogma and modern rational thought, these works also underscore the depth of our disbelief.

Howard Risatti