#53: Nick Harte – Warp of Vices

15th Jun 2022

Nick Harte is a Christchurch-based painter, musician and writer. His paintings on found record covers feature textured, scarred surfaces which conceal the original imagery of the covers. His exhibition Warp of Vices opens 5.30pm Tuesday 21 June 2022. Ahead of this, he discussed his artworks with City Art Reader editor Cameron Ralston.

You’ve mentioned you don’t like the idea of a sole theme in your work. Can you tell me about how you synthesise your interests and influences into your painting? What are the thematic ties in your Warp of Vices artwork?

It’s more that I just don’t deem it necessary to only introduce one theme in my work when preparing for an exhibition. It is of course a very institutionalised thing to strictly focus on one thematic inquiry for any given series of work, but I just don’t think that life is that simple, and I want my own work to reflect the complexities of life in all their confused, multi-layered majesty or horror. Mine is really just a process of embracing the many things that have been gnawing their way into my brain during the preparation period for an exhibition. I think that all my exhibitions will follow this system, if you can call it that (a non-system?), though there will always be themes which hog the limelight. For example, in the current body of work I will again focus on the body, and all its horror, as I’ve again been through a period of hospitalisation, this time as a result of my past drug use, which caused a stomach ulcer and resultant scar tissue which incrementally caused a very painful stomach blockage during the time I’d usually find myself painting for this exhibition. So it’s all rather long winded and pitiful, but this is why the show is called Warp of Vices, because it all goes back to old addictions. 

Snarling Brass, Nick Harte, Acrylic on 12” cardboard record cover, 312x312mm, 2022

This body of work seems to draw a lot from other forms of media – film, music, television, literature – which come with their own presentation concerns. Does the visual element of these works influence your art making?

Yes, this show includes a large number of themes, or at least sub-themes, that have found their way into the visual concerns of the paintings. For example: body horror (or ‘body beauty’ as David Cronenberg would say), accelerationism, cancel culture, the gloriously gothic seascapes of Albert Pinkham Ryder, the cinematography of Darius Khondji, 90s’ erotic thrillers, the palette of Pedro Almodovar’s films, the short stories of Joy Williams, Jane Bowles’ Tangier, the campy literary criticism of Harold Bloom, the Johnny Depp vs. Amber Heard trial (which I’ve been subjecting myself to as I paint) and the complex poetry of Emily Dickinson. As film director Jim Jarmusch says, ‘I consider myself a dilettante, not in a negative way, but because I have interests in a lot of different things and I want to try and do them. I’m not necessarily a master of anything.’ 

How has this body of work developed from your 2021 show Demonology? Are there ideas or processes you employed there which have carried over to this exhibition? Both exhibitions have autobiographical content to them in reference to your own health, is that something that you are very open about? Does painting play a part in recovery for you?

I’d say that this current body of work has ventured into more figurative territory, though it’s still a figuration that operates on the periphery between figuration and abstraction, which is something I would hope has always been there under the surface of all of my work, to some degree. With regard to the autobiographical content: yes, the health issues are something I’m obviously happy discussing. Unfortunately they have been a huge part of my life, so it just seems apt to speak about them in relation to the work. And yes, there’s probably a sense of catharsis involved, or at least something positive in getting it all off my chest, so to speak. I don’t know how much painting plays a part in recovery, however it is therapeutic and I would find it difficult not to feature it somehow in either the titles or the works themselves, which for this show, for example, includes the use of a palette you would associate more with that of both the interior and exterior of the body. Here’s a quote by photographer Gregory Crewdson which addresses the question of autobiography: ‘When I’m looking back at the pictures now (for the series An Eclipse of Moths), I know that during that time I was going through a period of health issues and I know that all artists do is they project whatever fears and anxieties they have onto their pictures and I do feel that what I was looking for in these figures is some version of myself.’ 

Sacred Songs, Nick Harte, Acrylic on 12” cardboard record cover, 312x312mm, 2022

Can you tell me about the consideration that goes into selecting the grounds onto which you paint? There are figurative elements within these which you conceal and reveal – are you quite planned in this or more intuitive and responsive?

It can be quite a fun process, hunting for painting supports, as my fiancee is a diehard op shop fan so we usually try to venture out together, especially as she seems to know the best spots all around the city. At this point I’m quite confident with what I want as I’m really just using 12″ record covers, other than the few larger frames I used for the last show I had with you. I’m currently really interested in exploiting the 12″ format as much as possible as this square configuration is perfect for the abstract compositions I’m doing and there’s something aesthetically pleasing to me about having a show using only this size, as once they’re framed (which I’ve commissioned from Chris Reddington to make, who’s a great local musician and craftsman), they all look a bit like mini, graffitied Donald Judd sculptures sticking out of the wall. Maybe I’ll do a show with larger works in the future. I also enjoy the obvious musical connection inherent in utilising these covers as supports, whether it be through an 80s’ hair metal act like Ratt or Winger, or a classical composer or performer like Kathleen Ferrier – the cover for her beautiful recording of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs of Dead Children), a favourite piece of mine, I’ve used in this series (whether or not it makes the final cut). I enjoy the work of other musician/painters like Jason Greig, Stella Corkery and Michael Morley, and appreciate the works by New Zealand artists such as Seraphine Pick, Ronnie van Hout, Saskia Leek and Tony de Lautour which contain references to musical culture. I see my own paintings as a continuation of this mutual zone of cogitation, however ambiguous the connections may be in each separate work. The incorporation of figurative elements is mainly intuitive as I’m usually layering the paint, multiple times, and then wiping the top surface in an effort to reveal areas of the lower text. It can often be quite a surprising process once you’ve forgotten about pre-existing figurative images, only to find their limbs stubbornly re-emerging in the performance of creating more abstract compositions. 

The works have an ephemeral quality to them – textural with blending, peeling, scarring and raising of paint. Does this project back onto those themes you’ve talked about? What draws you to this style of work? 

At this point my body features much internal and external scarring so it only feels fitting producing work which reflects this depreciation. Though, to be fair, it’s probably not as intentional as I’d like to think, as I believe that an artist, for better or worse, will always subconsciously project some of the more personal aspects of themself onto their work, which harkens back to the above Crewdson quote. It’s really the process of creating this type of work itself, with all the peeling and scarring you mention, that attracts me the most. I like the indeterminate nature of scratching away layers of paint which can quite often yield results which you didn’t see coming. Of course it’s also a very subjective thing; I find myself preferring to look at and work with surfaces that are textural, gestural, damaged, maimed. 

A Martyrdom of Chiasmic Malignancy, Nick Harte, Acrylic on 12” cardboard record cover, 312x312mm, 2022

How do you achieve the textural quality to the works with your paint application?

I used to use an actual cracking paint product but Tony de Lautour advised me that if you just use more water with acrylic paint you can achieve the same effect. It’s really a process of layering the paint over many sessions and experimenting with degrading the final few layers. For some works I’ll wipe the top layer of paint until clumps start to form and coagulate, then I’ll drag them until imagery from previous sessions appears and feeds into the final composition. A work like Unclean Rotting Sighs employs this tactic in the pink, lower section, though the final application of paint in the top half, which seems to imply some sort of figurative form with hair or something, was done by rubbing my fingers softly against the surface. I tried something similar with A Martyrdom of Chiasmic Malignancy, though this time I looked at Black Metal band logos and attempted to blur the compositional structures of the logos for Mayhem, Watain and others to come up with spectral, chimeric movements that imply, rather than spell out, the words or ideologies of the aforementioned bands. I’m more interested in ambiguity than being force fed images that have an agenda. 

Earlier you mentioned that your colour palette is one more associated with the body. How does your use of green and turquoise hues work into that?

Turquoise is undeniably my favourite colour, so it seems to creep into any series of work I’m producing. During my recent hospital stay I had a stomach blockage, which was possibly the most painful thing I’ve ever been through (even more so than a previous stomach ulcer and kidney stones, which were both excruciating), and finally I started to emit a dark green bile, due to getting intentionally poisoned with a hospital administered toxic dye via a nasogastric tube I wore for 5-plus gruelling days of sleepless mania. So anyway, this dark green bile left an inexpungable impression on me and swindled its way into the fabric of this series, giving it, conversely, a greater unity than any of my previous exhibitions. 

Deathlike Silence, Nick Harte, Acrylic on 12” cardboard record cover, 312x312mm, 2022

The titles for your works are expressive and, like your thinking around the exhibition, seem to be full of references. I’m interested to know how you form and choose these and how they relate to each painting?

They come from a diverse number of sources: film, philosophy, poetry, music or sometimes simply just from overhearing something interesting that someone has said. I’m a big fan of appropriation art (I have a Richard Prince tattoo on my chest for heaven’s sake!) so I extract things from all over the show, for example one painting is entitled Deathlike Silence which is taken from the name of the Black Metal label founded by Oystein Aarseth, who was murdered by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Burzum. Another one is called Starring Billy Bob & Easy Amber which was what Johnny Depp scrawled on his wall with his blood in a drunken rage after the tip of his finger was decapitated by Amber Heard. A Martyrdom of Chiasmic MalignancyGlossolalia of Ashen Fountains and The Long Night of the Blade are taken from poems I’ve written over the past year which I eventually hope to publish. I keep an extensive list on my phone of potential titles and I find that certain words or phrases seem to suit certain paintings so it’s often quite a natural fit, selecting the titles. 

Some of these are quite dark and violent references – what draws you to that? It seems your work has a rawness which reflects on the often fraught, imperfect human experience.

I’m no Freudian (though I do find his writing fascinatingly repulsive and impossible to put down, like a solid author of detective fiction, which I feel he secretly aspired to be) so I can’t adequately uncover the meaning of any of my childhood traumas. But I was exposed to horror cinema like The Exorcist (whose palette is evident in the two previously mentioned works) when I was 7 years old, which kicked off an obsessive quest to see every horror film ever made, one whose unattainable denouement I’m still desperately attempting to conclude. I also got into heavy metal at a very young age; I recall my father taking me to an Into The Void practice and Jason Greig cornering me and attempting to push a Flotsam and Jetsam cassette on me. I may have told this story before, but he was also trying to pitch Zodiac Mindwarp (whose leader I ended up meeting by chance in London), and whose foul inflections I’ve tried to avoid ever since. I later ended up filling in on guitar for Jason’s brother James, at one of their practices, and am also a big fan of Jason’s visual work, which is likewise obsessed with heavy metal and so-called gothic, literary imagery, in its own way. I used to wear a denim jacket when I was 9 years old which was covered in hair metal band logos and patches of the late 80s, so I guess my current work is a continuation of these interests and infatuations. I also formed a Blackened Death Metal band called Asteroth when I was 13, for which I wrote the music and played drums. I remember playing at Satanfest, at a venue called Quadrophenia, and we all just wore our Shirley Boy’s High School uniforms with our socks pulled up, which provided a nice antithesis to all the sweat, muscle and corpse paint of the other, older bands. Metal and horror certainly runs through my blood (along with many other interests), though I think of this as an extremely positive thing, to embrace what you refer to as the dark and imperfect human experience. I feel confidently that you’ll get far more fulfilment out of life if you embrace death, which is of course so intimately entwined with life anyway. 

Winter Light, Nick Harte, Acrylic on 12” cardboard record cover, 312x312mm, 2022