Traditional Approaches to Radical Art

Mark Harris is an artist, critic, curator, and the current Director of the School of Art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning. His diverse range of works include mixed media, sound installation, cut paper, artist books, and paintings. For his recent exhibition at Country Club Gallery, Harris created five graphite-on-paper drawings and five large-scale oil-on-linen paintings, sourced directly from Dick Fairfield’s study, “The Modern Utopian: Communes, U.S.A.,” (1970).

The two disciplines that Harris studied during his academic career were painting and philosophy; his current exhibition reveals an intellectual exchange between the two. Given his formalist knowledge of painting technique and in light of his philosophical interests, Harris demonstrates Hegelian and Marxist dialectics in this recent exhibition. A Romantic in the tradition of Baudelaire and Lord Byron, he depicts, with conceptual nostalgia, subjects who tried to reject materialism through a communal lifestyle. Paradoxically, Harris employs didactic text as historical allusion to ephemera, downplaying the art object in a critique of capitalism.

Harris named the exhibition “Morning Star” after an eponymous open-land “hip-psychedelic” commune featured in Fairfield’s aforementioned three-volume anthropological study. Fairfield traveled around America interviewing and photographing people living in intentional communities during the mid to late sixties in his brief and dated paperback. The book serves as a time capsule for groups who lived both literally and figuratively on the fringes of society. By using Fairfield’s book as his source material, Harris’s drawings and paintings also demonstrate how Utopian communities occupied remote locations and rejected many societal norms. One might even refer to Harris’s subjects as avant-garde in their quality of counter-culture-ness

Installed nearest the entrance to Country Club’s gallery space, the five graphite value drawings on deckled-edge watermarked paper are blown up to over four times their size and are more successful than the accompanying paintings. Because of their scale, there is a quality of light and detail about the drawings that cannot exist in the paperback’s relatively smaller black and white photographs. Of the drawings, Harris wrote, “[they] allow an exacting interpretation of every detail of photographs that might otherwise be passed over in at a glance.” Subjects appear haloed and captions included provide us with their names and relationships (father, wife, daughter). This intentional attention to detail evidences the humanity in Harris’s subjects, and demands that the viewer dwell upon the meticulousness of his specificity.

The lettering Harris rendered (in both positive and negative typescript) accompanies the images above and/or below the photographic drawings, therein emphasizing the narrative of these utopian groups. Harris incorporated as many as two paragraphs of sixteen lines in his drawings, including quotes like, “…living off the fat of the land. Why are they having such a good time while us people have to slave in factories eighteen hours a day?” demonstrating the artist’s shared anti-materialist commitment.

As Country Club’s official Press Release attests, dealing with elements of Sixty’s psychedelia and utopian visions of the future is nothing new for Harris. However, the artist’s current approach seems to signal a “return to painting” for a former proponent of the proverbial “painting is dead” adage. True to artist and writer Richard Roth’s word, Harris’s previous paintings were “both sculptural and dematerialized.” Because Harris deviates from past methodological approaches to art creation in “Morning Star,” it is worthwhile to briefly investigate some of his earlier works.

Consistent with his avant-garde approach, Harris has consistently challenged the trope of artist as painter. He created vulnerable art objects, or “frail paintings” like Untitled, (1993) andUntitled, (1996). Harris is also known for his conceptual installation work, such as the aptly named sound installation, Wall of Sound (1996). Indeed, when I attended DAAP for my Masters (disclaimer: Harris was an active and supportive member of my thesis committee) he was notorious for positing that if artists were to indulge in painting, they better have a “damn good reason for doing so.”

Contextualizing the work of someone as seasoned as Harris is a challenge but one can find threads of commonalities throughout his oeuvre. One concept he routinely mines is intoxication, and “Morning Star” is no different. Two of the larger paintings, Acid Babies, andTune into the land and let the trees and the sky and the sunshine teach me how are taken from a black and white photograph in Fairfield’s book, and the title Acid Babies refers directly to the adjacent text [Harris’s source materials are in a binder at Country Club’s front desk]. The smaller of the two at seven feet tall (Babies) is much bigger than it likely was in real life and it is clear that the artist took liberties with the poster’s depiction. Contrasting tones are darker than in the black and white photographs and one gets the idea that we are meant to understand that this is merely an appropriation of the actual ephemera it depicts.

Within Harris’s exhibition, metanarratives abound. For example, we can assume the artist titled the work Acid Babies because of the accompanying story in the book of a mother who “consciously conceived” her son Vishnu while on acid. Although there is no direct source quote for several of the other titles, the phrases easily sound like they might come from interviews with many of the commune’s residents, and underscore Harris’s emphasis on the “tune in, drop out” philosophy held by his subjects. Examples include the aforementioned Tune into the land… as well as There is a proper set of coordinates on earth’s surface for every consciousness, and The minute that consciousness expands again highlighting the artist’s penchant for mind-altered states of perception. For Harris, intoxication as a concept—a method of transcendence—seems to provide the avant-garde with an entry point for opposition without the hassle of overt conflict.

As the above metanarratives illustrate, Harris continues to experiment with ways to create conceptual art. Building upon Fairfield’s book and his own drawings, the paintings expose the corresponding ephemera as sentimental and slapdash—after all, they were most likely made by amateurs and not meant to last. The naïve paintings in “Morning Star” reveal visible pencil outlines, minimal brushwork, and obvious differences in color tone from their original source. The larger than life-sized bright painted canvases depict images with psychedelic connotations: an angel, hookah-smoking caterpillar (a la Alice in Wonderland), geometric mandala, astrological wheel, & pseudo rock poster. The paintings are a riff on their original source and Harris romantically emphasizes their ephemeral quality in an effort to downplay their material value, thereby strengthening his working dialectic.

The most successful of the paintings is the rock poster-like Balance and Equilibriumbecause it exists in the show on several levels. Commune Drawing: Summer Solsticemakes more direct use of the text from the painting in its title, and the accompanying copy from the book in the drawing is almost joyously combative. Above the lines, “Freedom is a dangerous condition. It can destroy you as well as save you. Sherry is still roaming the countryside living out her missed teenage years…” In the drawing, a young woman (Sherry?) smiles next to a poster advertising a Summer Solstice Celebration. She can be seen facing the viewer with coy yet carefree defiance. Interesting to note is that Harris looks to have spent as much effort in drawing the paisley and wood grain background as he did depicting the work’s subject. As in the other paintings, Harris seems to be deemphasizing the art object, while underscoring its human subject.

The metanarratives within the story of “Morning Star” and other communes that Harris depicts from Fairfield’s study are what make these traditional yet conceptual works so successful. Their significance as Objets d’art comes less from their life-sized scale, attention to tone, and sentimentality, than from their multilayered allusion to the long-lost objects and people that the works represent in the artist’s critique of capitalism. Harris lays claim to the product of the studio via avant-garde means, and in doing so, Harris achieves radicalism with his conceptual approach.

– Maria Seda-Reeder

Mark Harris, ‘Morning Star’ at Country Club, 3209 Madison Road, Cincinnati, OH 45209. Tel. 513.792.9744. [email protected] Hours Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and by appointment. Through October 2, 2010.



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