47: Nick Harte – Demonology

11th Sep 2021

Nick Harte is a Christchurch-based painter, musician, and writer. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. He has performed in Shocking Pinks, The Brunettes, DOG Power, and currently plays in the Aotearoa Snuff Jazz Ensemble. An album of his solo electronic music was recently released under the pseudonym Mercedes Cambridge.

Ahead of his upcoming exhibition Demonology at City Art Depot Harte discussed his artwork over email with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston.

‘Familiar II’, acrylic on 12″ cardboard record cover, 2021

Cameron Ralston: Your initial idea for this exhibition when we spoke to you last year was the end of policing, something different to what you have finished with here – demons, foxes, familiars, belief systems… What brought you to these other ideas, can you go into the motivation for that change? Are there elements of your initial thinking and work that have been carried into this new body of work?

Nick Harte: Alex S. Vitale’s book The End of Policing interested me greatly and as it lured its hooks into me in a way that raised a seemingly inexhaustible number of important questions about, amongst others, the efficacy of police training, the militarisation of the police, racism in the police force and community, murders committed by police, etc, I thought I could immerse myself in the research of the book’s core concepts while creating work for the show. And this I did, going so far as to nightly consume the final three seasons of the American TV show Cops before it was cancelled in a token gesture of political correctness at the height of Trump’s deranged reign as president. The bleak reality of both the book and the TV show proved a depressing choice for the topic of my paintings and as I was so passionate about it, and as I also struggled to reconcile the largely US-based research with police practice on our own shores, I began to question its validity as the thematic basis of my work. Importantly around this time I was hospitalised for a week as a result of acidosis due to starvation and lost the use of my regular eyesight, having to wear a patch to normalise the double vision. The lingering possibility that my eyesight would never return was quite terrifying, especially as it took the doctors a week to figure out how to treat the affliction, and still the eyesight was no better. Miraculously it returned one day the week following my discharge from hospital and this perhaps led to an interest in belief systems, and to subsequent research into witchcraft, demons, familiars, especially those found in Eastern countries like Japan. At this point I decided to abandon the initial topic and pursue something more personal, which I see as a symptom of my time in hospital. My hope was that I could potentially marinate in all the various trajectories my renewed research was taking me which would in turn feed into a new, more heterogeneous body of work. Other recent paths of inquiry have included Carl Jung’s The Red Book, the hyper-pastel palette of the 1990 film Miami Blues (lensed by Jonathan Demme regular Tak Fugimoto), Japanese demon foxes (Kitsunetsuki), the technicolour work British cinematographer Jack Cardiff did for the Michael Powell ~ Emeric Pressburger team during the late 40’s, especially the glorious film A Matter of Life and Death (a screening of which I attended earlier in the year), Saskia Leek, William Blake, the beautiful poetry of Andrei’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky, Junji Ito, Hilma af Klint (whose paintings I am very excited about seeing in the flesh early next year with my fiancée), the new Francis Bacon biography by Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swan which has accompanied me in my studio and perhaps has had some impact upon the bruised surfaces of the larger works I’ve produced (my arms were likewise adorned with heavy bruising due to the multitude of blood tests and failed attempts to find a vein during my hospital stay), Walter Benjamin’s desire to create a book (the posthumously published Arcades Project) composed entirely of quotations, Saint-John Perse, Edmond Jabes, Maurice Blanchot, the oppressive mood of Howard Shore’s scores for the films of David Cronenberg, etc.

‘Breath Play’, acrylic & nail polish on 12″ cardboard record cover, 2021

You’ve mentioned that typically your work is singularly focussed on one topic or idea which you go into in great depth. How has taking on a broader subject range and combining different areas of research affected your way of making and thinking about paintings?

This mosaic-like approach has allowed me more freedom which in turn has ironically led to a greater amount of unity among the works than usual. Some of the paintings even display figurative elements, an abnormality in my previous work, which was a direct result of the research into, for example, Japanese demon foxes. These paintings then evolved into another subseries of work centred around, more broadly, familiars. It’s been a pleasure this time to work on things that are constantly unfolding before me.

What is it in particular that draws you to the areas of witchcraft, demons and familiars – often with their sinister connotations? Did you have interest in these prior to your hospital experience? Like with the form of the fox, have you drawn from other imagery, artists, or painterly techniques associated with these fields?

I’ve been fascinated with this line of inquiry for years, having written multiple essays on these topics for cultural studies and cinema studies papers at the University of Canterbury. These often focused on the sociological ramifications of witch trials and the persecution of both women and men by the Catholic Church. Though with this series I’ve put these areas to one side in favour of investigating the histories and intricacies of early witchcraft practices in various cultures, the only sinister connotations of which I see as being directly projected onto them by the aforementioned Christian powers of the time. I made a strong decision to cast aside religion at age 4 when my mother took me to church one Sunday morning. My response was to swim breaststroke style up the aisle, on the church floor, to the feet of the priest delivering the sermon. Afterwards I expressed to my mother that I would never set foot in a church again, and I haven’t, apart from a yearly sojourn to the Easter performance of Bach’s St. John Passion, as Bach is the composer I hold most dear to my heart. I’ve always been most attracted to the outsider, the Other, which means that witchcraft is an obvious fit for me. A filmmaker like Nicholas Ray, whose work I love and continues to influence me, is also someone who repeatedly dealt with the outsider in his oeuvre, for example.

‘Brat Diet’, acrylic, pumice gel & solvents on wood, 2021

Is your painting process very intuitive – quick and gestural? You mention things unfold before you – how do you channel that researching into abstract mark making?

I find that my painting process works best when I’m operating promptly and mindfully. Inspired by the great film editor (and director of Return to Oz) Walter Murch, I produce all my paintings standing up, sometimes holding the work in my left hand as I apply the paint with my right. The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans has said that he becomes physically ill if he paints for more than three hours per day and I must admit that this is also the case with my own practice. I do a great deal of daily research and preparation of materials, etc, but the actual painting period encompasses a securely honed realm in which I have to force myself to work quickly to ensure the best, truest results. I’m constantly reading when I’m not painting and I hope that this naturally feeds into the work, rather than, for example, attempting to incorporate figurative elements that relate to the research material (though this is perhaps the case with a couple of the fox paintings in this series).

Tell me about the mediums you use for the works. For instance some of your works are painted on record covers, how is that important to the work? Do you restrict yourself to certain materials or are you more situational with those decisions?

Music, film, literature, poetry, etc, are all as important to me as painting and I consider myself as much a musician, filmmaker and writer as I am a painter. For this reason, there is a slight bleed-through effect with regards to medium. I started painting on record covers when studying at the University of Canterbury when Robin Neate suggested to me that the square format works generally best for abstract painting. The small scale of 12″ record covers was also a perfect fit. There is no great conceptual theory behind their use. As well as acrylic paint (which of course dries very quickly) I use solvents, nail polish, iridescent medium, pumice gel, collage, etc. I would like to use oil paint as I’m all for the richness of their colours but the drying time, plus the fact that they would eventually make the cardboard covers rot, rules them out. I also like the challenge, or obstruction to borrow a Lars Von Trier term, that acrylic paints pose, as one must work doubly hard to earn the best results when using them.

A selection of books read by Nick Harte as research

Do you listen to music or watch films while you paint? If so, what is it you choose to listen to/watch and why?

As mentioned earlier, I’m presently about 25 hours into the new Francis Bacon audiobook biography by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. It’s extremely well researched and can be quite gosspy at times which makes for an amusing backdrop while painting. I also often listen to metal while working which is a habit I acquired during my visits to Jason Greig’s studio many years ago. My dad was friends with the members of Jason’s band Into The Void, so I encountered those lunatics at a very early age and their addiction to metal rubbed off on me, for better or worse. My favourite metal bands/projects are Bethlehem, Mystifier, Grausamkeit, 폐허, Corneus, Bathory, Blasphemy, Evol, Rotting Christ, Unholy, etc. I’ve also recently been listening to Mahler’s lieder, Harry Nilsson, Purcell, Purple Pilgrims, Howard Shore’s scores for David Cronenberg films, Negative Nancies, Michael Nyman, Girls Pissing on Girls Pissing, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sparks, Source Direct, Snapper, etc. I’d love to be able to watch films while working though the way I paint requires my full attention. My friend Henry Turner is able to watch films, which is something I’m quite jealous of, though his process is very different to mine in that it is more planned and mine is more intuitive.

‘In One of the Earth’s Attics’, acrylic & nail polish on 12″ cardboard record cover, 2021

As a multi-disciplinary artist are there similarities in the way you approach painting, writing, music and film making? I’m also interested to know more about how you intersect these areas of artistic practice, for example you have produced a text which accompanies this body of work.

I’ve found that I do a lot of research in each of these mediums, and there is a lot of quotation, or sampling involved. My recent solo album under the name Mercedes Cambridge was entirely made up of samples gleaned from Youtube videos, and the piece of writing I used to accompany the Facebook event for this show was likewise made up mostly of snippets from poems, philosophical writings, novels, etc that I enjoy reading. I guess this is also perhaps why I still insist on mainly using record covers as supports to paint over, as I like the idea of there being a ghostly aura dwelling beneath the surface, even if one cannot make it out:

“What shadow, with an incomparable power, etches on the wall of my room, the projection of its shrivelled silhouette? The familiar, whose paths burn to a cinder, cut to pieces through a secret understanding, a slave dream. I have chosen a place glaring and null as the bone-heap of the seasons. What thickening mist confiscates your metallic kiss. The lock in the heart that shatters. Your neck twisted with sorrow. In her chamber she went down to the house of death, where pain is avenged and lips lack the courage to crawl. A rotting ring on an alabaster glove, constructed and maintained by fire. Waters of the sleeper, tree of absence, shoreless hours. Out of the bronze tree comes a great bruit of voices. The moon slashes an orchid’s breath, devoid of mesmerism. I surround myself with carnivorous plants and legendary animals, all bathed in the coarse yet funereal light of a doomed canticle. I lick my snout. And on some part of the body of the possessed a moving lump appears under the skin. Shiver, lime, crushed leaves. Indescribable alchemies upon unpronounceable blackness of the Middle Ages. In the glare of the bonfires, the marked ones dance in circles riding branches and foliage, symbols of fertility. Spangled is the earth with her crowns, strange is the madness of those into whom demon foxes enter. Night has only the silence and horror of darkness with which to counter all of noon’s constituent features. I heard hyena cries that exposed me to the threat of a wild animal (I think those cries were my own). Animals don’t laugh. Though sometimes foxes scream.”