Two approaches to abstraction

By Quentin Sprague

Exhibitions by Brent Harris and Karl Wiebke reinforce how abstract painting can both beguile and explore big questions

Brent Harris, the small sword 2017, installation view, Tolarno Galleries. Image courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries

In the crisp setting of Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, Brent Harris’ exhibition of new paintings, The Small Sword (until 4 November), presents as intriguingly aloof. Soft bodily forms – flat and graphic – pass across his canvases. Only momentarily do they coalesce into something recognisable: a recurrent white figure whose face and limbs are stuck in a state of constant becoming; a yellow hat more phallus than sun shade; a black void that’s revealed in one painting as the vastly dilated pupil of a giant eye. Harris’ paintings are clearly abstract, but they’re also not. Born in New Zealand in 1956, Harris has long skirted the edges of figuration, but when he draws too close he often turns away. The Small Sword might be the closest he’s come, but he’s nonetheless gesturing at figurative form and narrative from the other side: what it is he’s getting at is never entirely clear.




Brent Harris, the small sword 2017, installation view, Tolarno Galleries. Image courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries


In the recent paintings there’s plenty of clues. Along with the central figure, there are ghouls and ghosts and faces peering from behind trees. Adam and Eve, or at least figures like them, appear in two separate works. In one, a head looks upwards at a white cross, tiny on a mountain above. The recurrent white figure can be taken as a cipher for either “the painter” or “the everyman”, but as with the field of religiously toned signifiers he is set among, the character remains frustratingly obtuse. Where does he take us, and to what ends? Put more simply, what exactly do Harris’ works divulge?

Anyone familiar with Harris’ body of work would recognise that any answers come only through prolonged exposure. Meaning is never spelt out: instead, it accrues slowly. One of his most striking series, Grotesquerie, spoke of familial trauma: archetypal figures, rendered in Harris’ characteristically crisp swamp-arabesques, embodied “the father” and “the mother”; bodily secretions bound them together. It was an obvious figurative turn that seemed to open the floodgates: soon named deities – Christ, Buddha, Ganesha – began to populate his works. The subject, although still deeply personal, was clearly one of faith: faith in religion, yes, but also faith in human relationships and faith in painting itself. Here painting-as-subject becomes a kind of oblique self-portrait, but it is also far more. Painting is a difficult craft, not least for its pronounced “uselessness” when measured by the metric of the broader culture. For this reason, the practice can for many become one of sustained doubt: why paint is a question that can readily take on existential shape.

No surprise, then, that one of Harris’ most pronounced influences is the late, great New Zealand painter Colin McCahon. McCahon’s most celebrated works were, like Harris’, reduced and graphic things. In his celebrated text paintings from the 1970s he simply transcribed passages from the Bible, crafting his compositions through enlargement and erasure. But although painting provided McCahon a lifelong means to grapple with his own complex relationship to Christianity, his works readily transcended ideological readings. Instead, they spoke directly to the darkness and hope that traces the painter’s solitary craft while also raising a fundamental question of abstraction: what might it tell us that figuration cannot?

Another painter who works across similar ground is the late-career Karl Wiebke, whose exhibition Tales of Two Houses is showing at Sydney’s Liverpool Street Gallery (until 18 November). Although highly respected, Wiebke is something of an outlier in Australian art: over the years, he’s been the subject of retrospective surveys in Perth and Canberra, but in Australia there’s a limited vocabulary for the kind of paintings he makes. At one level they can be described as rule-based reductive abstractions, but this does little to communicate the insistent poetry that lies at the core of Wiebke’s practice. He is an artist entranced by the emotive potential of colour and form. Like Harris, he, too, treats painting as a kind of medium of negotiation between internal and external lives, but whereas Harris’ paintings are marked by a restless-seeming search for answers, Wiebke’s are almost preternaturally settled.

Born in Germany just before the end of World War Two, Wiebke came of age in a country still reeling from cultural and moral destruction. Some of his first memories concern the war’s immediate aftermath: the burnt-out tanks that still dotted the countryside near his childhood home; scavenging with friends for scrap metal in the tangled remains of bombed buildings. When he attended art school in Hamburg it was with artists such as Martin Kippenberger who would go on to become internationally renowned leaders of Germany’s postwar avant-garde. But Wiebke looked elsewhere: first India, then, on a whim, Australia. He settled in Fremantle in Western Australia in the early 1980s (he’s now based in Melbourne) and went about reworking the inheritance of European abstraction by way of the alien light and colour of a new continent.

Wiebke’s new paintings are characteristically personal. Stoically abstract, they nonetheless depict landscapes of the imagination. Underpinning the 62 small works on display in Sydney is a series of more than 800 works on paper, ranging from tiny to very small. Each shows two houses, in the loosest sense, against fields of colour that often suggest landscapes but which readily unfurl into painterly expanses. In a short accompanying artist’s statement, Wiebke explains his motivations for this series in the simplest of terms. The subject, he notes, is far less important than the framework it provides: “The idea of two houses seemed enough to establish a narrative, a starting point for putting paint on a surface and giving the brush directions to move.” From there, painting itself took over. Wiebke found himself preoccupied with questions of form and colour, with the porosity of surface, even the sound his brush made as it dragged paint across the canvas.

Karl Wiebke, Tales of Two Houses 1, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 30.5 x 40.6 cm


Seen in light of Harris’ new work, Wiebke’s paintings display an undeniable freedom, but there are, nonetheless, insistent similarities. Each artist shows how abstract painting can be turned towards big questions without losing its potential to beguile. Both practices are obtuse, but the rewards are many: anyone interested in current painting in Australia would be well served by a visit to either exhibition.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Brent Harris, the small sword 2017, installation view, Tolarno Galleries. Image courtesy the artist and Tolarno Galleries

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