Continuous Movement - Solo Exhibition Aus 18 Galleria 2010
Mark Harris’ recent works are small in size but epic in scale – and slightly disturbing: their subject matter, landscapes and fragments of buildings ensnared by insistent growths of facetted triangular elements, that combine into larger structures and meshes. These appear sometimes as small barbs or huge agglomerations, or rear up as intricate skeletal frameworks.
The material presence of these ‘abstract devices’, as Harris describes them, appears across all the works – collaged, drawn or modelled - and worked up in pencil, ink or paint over found images: often architectural photographs and landscape drawings, but also utilising the folders they were stored in or the book-covers that protected them.
Several of the images for the earlier Defence series of works are photographs of classical ruins; others etchings of eighteenth-century capriccios - of rural idylls scattered with the architectural carcasses of a heroic Classical past. And like capriccios, Harris’ works revel in the joy of drawing, mark-making and the constructing of the image, with their intensively worked up or deftly delineated areas. But they remain altogether darker and more ambiguous in meaning – an ambiguity added to by the prefix to many of the works’ titles: A Continuous Defense. But these spiky ‘devices’ appear more aggressive than passive, invasive rather than defensive. Are these images of a failed, broken defense under a new order - the remnants of a past already partly subsumed? Or are the triangular forms themselves ruins? Fragments of failed mega-structures recalling Sixties utopian projects: such as Constant Niewenhuys’ ‘New Babylon’ – a structure that crossed the planet proposing new collective society – or perhaps more pertinently the work of Superstudio which critiqued this. Their Continuous Monument project presented an endless grid of cool white modernist blocks stretching seamlessly across the globe. Harris consciously references this project in the title of his show, but his structures are the polar opposite in form: more akin to brambles growing over an old battlefield.
These speculative readings are further accentuated by the works subtitles: Northern Gate, Western Depot. But what grand historical narrative is depicted? Are these snapshots from the outposts of a fallen empire or city after some calamitous defence? These overlapping ambiguities are played out in a number of ‘seascape’ works, such as Continuous Defense – Northern Break in which the carcass of a boat is half-capsized, covered in a crust of triangulated matter, in front of a lofty iceberg. But is the trail of shards streaming away from, or towards, the stricken hull?
In other examples, shards themselves have become iceberg-sized: forming compositions that play on the pleasure and fear in the contemplation of ‘sublime’ nature seen in the work of Caspar David Friedrich – both his vasty vistas but also the fractured surfaces in his painting Das Eismeer (Frozen Ocean) 1823-4, and its echoing descendant Paul Nash’s Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1, a pit of German aircraft debris. Other narratives are contained here that give a richness to this collective body of work.
There is the history of the appropriated images themselves, which for Harris is particularly important. These were pictures on their last journey, unlooked at pages in pulp-destined books. This material was on the point of dissolution, rescued as valueless stuff from the back of a charity shop, and given new value through being worked upon, even partially erased - or chopped up, in the case of the book covers, into a myriad of splinters re-assembled into maquettes. In all this a strong element of chance plays out: shops entered or passed by, piles of old books noticed or overlooked, or in particular here, the folders of architectural images that Harris came across his father-in-law throwing out: material that went on to generate and form the basis for so many of these works.
But contrasting with this element of chance, is the background narrative here, the methodical process of making once the material has been accumulated - of Harris working, moving around the studio, selecting images, painting, drawing, cutting: a ‘continuous movement’ also in part commemorated by the show’s title. And of course this is a developing narrative: a practice measurably moving on work by work: winnowing ideas, modifying methods. Thus in more recent Continuous Defense works, the triangular facets have started taking to the air – looping up as arch-like formations, dissipating into skeletal frameworks that merely encircle and frame the architectural elements.
Or there is Harris’ seemingly effortless move into the making of maquettes, in which ‘devices’ are modelled through fractured book-covers.
Most recent is the series of new works titled Continuous Movement. Here the working of the surface has been further fragmented and simplified – with collaged elements often the cut-out shapes of gridded Modernist blocks. Some of the works appear more as graphics, recalling the collages and drawings of Constructivism, but also its architecture: Continuous Movement – Northeast Tower echoing the form of Tatlin’s tower, seeming to give a political edge to the ‘movement’ of the title.
This shift from the ‘working over’ of more sited architectural forms to the manipulation of the more abstracted, detached facades and outlines of anonymous Modernist blocks, seems to mimic the stereotyped shift in architectural history itself from ‘grounded’ Classical Architecture to unsituated International Modernism.
However many recent drawings remain far more hermetic, without any collaged cues: appearing as delicate delineations like the structural analyses of leaf structures. And ultimately this gives the lie to any need to glean meaning from each work, but to enjoy them as intense iterative exercises in form and texture, similarity and difference – stations on a way, and ones that make the viewer’s own journey around the gallery or through the catalogue, such a rich one.
Catalogue essay Rob Wilson Curator at RIBA