Auckland

Michael Harrison

Ivan Anthony Gallery

Michael Harrison’s painting ventures an unfashionable mode of generalization, in which archetypes risk dismissal as stereotypes, deep truths as clichés. This tension is given force by the unusually restricted focus of the artist’s investigation, which has confined itself for three decades to the medium of dilute acrylic, mostly on paper (one work here was on canvas). Of the pieces in this exhibition, “Sun Square Saturn,” all completed in 2009, two were started in the past few years, four others have been in the works since between 1996 and 1998, and three are dated starting 1989. One of the latter is particularly luminous in its investment and revisions, bearing a title that alludes to the divinatory practices that have evolved around the tarot: The Devil Reversed.

In this work, a female figure reaches to embrace a man, her head bent slightly toward his, her eyes closed in the face of his blank stare. At the midpoint between them, the crux of her arm is overlaid with an inverted bat’s head. Although in a very different manner from the detailed depiction of the bat’s vulvic nose, the ground against which these figures stand becomes an abstraction of the creature’s wings, which spatially connect the couple. Echoing the tension in the subtle asymmetries of their postures and of this dark ground silhouetted between them, the man’s hairline extends into a jagged connection with the female’s forehead and is mirrored in a small, faceted, craggy shape in the bottom right corner, suggestive of a treacherous landscape, that in turn refers to another fang- or hornlike spike within the woman’s arm.

Common to the various representational modes seen here is a restricted range of unnatural colors and lines whose graphic weight often implies patient drafting. Human figures and animals are depicted with a gentle precision that amplifies their symbolic appearance. Drawn together in this way, Harrison’s media and page-scaled format are reinforced rather than contradicted by the use of multiple styles within a composition. In Mistress of Hounds, 1989–2009, for example, a dog rendered in soft brushstrokes sits alongside a crisp portrait. In At the Flood, 1998–2009, a shadowy horse’s head is painted into the corner of a more detailed rendering. As the different depictions are combined, each denaturalizes the other, and we can see either or both as ideas, psychic presences.

These internal contrasts rhyme with other doublings to suggest a self-consciousness consonant with the intensely subjective space of the images: the embracing couples that sit within the outline of a head and shoulders in Sleepless, 1997–2009, the tug-of-war pairing in Yours and Mine, 1997–2009, or the silhouette within a silhouette in Palace of Thought, 2006–2009. In contrast to works like the latter, with its visible overpainting and carefully penciled underlay, Arethusa, 1996–2009—befitting the legend according to which the nymph, surprised bathing, dissolved in her own sweat—is an entirely fluid rendering of a female nude in blue, turning away with arm outstretched, arms and lower body cropped by the page; this work’s thirteen-year gestation, then, is possibly more one of maturation than of adjustment, something whose rightness needed nothing but the confirmation of time.

Jon Bywater