Gallery Talk


02 May · Katrina

Portraiture traditionally draws its authority from the real, from the unique presence of the subject whose image it depicts. As art historian Richard Brilliant writes, the portrait’s allusion to an individual human being “defines the function of the artwork in the world.” But if the primary purpose of the art of portraiture is to record human (or animal) likeness, what happens when evidence of that similitude is annihilated by the very medium normally used in its creation?

The excavations of figure and form by Christchurch artist, sculptor and printmaker Samuel Harrison reveal a deep affinity with both subject and medium. His portraits, self-portraits and figure studies (animal and human) are meticulously crafted, indicative of a close engagement with his models – he works only from life – that is both empathetic and utterly, almost brutally, objective. As gallerist Andrew Jenson writes, Harrison’s is a “thorough visceral enquiry”, raking across the terrain of the body to expose, like the excruciatingly honest portraits of Francis Bacon, the imperfect maps of our emotional and psychological histories.

This trenchant truthfulness is evident across the spectrum of his work: plaster smoothed and sculpted over steel forms, wax clumped and molded, ink pulled and pooled over wood and, as seen for the first time in this exhibition, charcoal, inscribed, rubbed and drawn over/pressed into the paper in a dramatic near-obliteration of the face. While the figure remains central to these works, identity is here eradicated, the exacting attentiveness of traditional portraiture countered – intuitively, anarchically – by the provocative gesture that removes the recognisability of the subject and the expectations of the viewer.

As the medium takes over, concealing rather than revealing the primary information of the subject, we are left to excavate what we can, digging into a darkening here, a contour here, a perfectly depicted and unmasked ear there in an instinctive search for recognisability.

“I wanted to get away from the portrait as the final thing,” says Harrison, “so it was about looking at the face and deciding what to remove.”

What is left is an extraordinarily concentrated focus on medium as subject as much as process, in which contemporary and historic ideals of beauty and the art of portraiture are sacrificed to the strong gestural employment of his chosen medium. “I am dealing with the figure,” he says, “as something people can relate to. The subject matter brings it into the realm of realism but it is not about making it exact. It is an expression of it. The medium dictates the end result – it is about that truth of material.”

Born in 1985 in Christchurch, Samuel Harrison graduated with a Bachelor of Art & Design from the Canterbury Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s School of Art & Design in 2006 and held his first solo exhibition in 2008. That year he won the Mortlock McCormack Art Award, the Farina Thompson Drawing Award and had a work purchased for the Will Cummings Memorial Collection. Harrison is represented in private and public collections in New Zealand and Australia.


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