Unbelivable Art by Steven John Harris

Art as I see it

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*Critique by Ed McCormack, New York.*
*Steven John Harris: A Working Class Hero is Something to Be.pSteven John Harris, whose second New York solo show can be seen from June 7th through 27th at Montserrat Gallery, 584 Broadway, has become something of an overnight sensation since the British press picked up a review of his first exhibition (this past October in the same venue), which appeared in Gallery & Studio.pA Tv News crew even showed up unexpectedly on Harris' doorstep in Lancashire after The Times, The Evening Herald and The Independant all reprinted the following quote from our critic Peter Wiley: 'Although Harris is self-taught, there is nothing naive or innocent about his work. Rather, his paintings are almost wickedly knowing about the convoluted entanglements of human relationships. To the league of modern British painters, such as Bacon, Hockney and Hodgkin, whom we admire as much for their quirky qualities as for their solid aesthetic attributes, we must now add the name of Steven John Harris.'pBecause he's a big, bearish, down-to-earth bloke who supports his wife and kids as a scaffolder and started painting fifteen years ago, when he was laid off work for a while, Harris has been getting the full 'working class hero' treatment. However, this is more than just a human interest story, fit for a Beatles song, about a scaffolder who picked up a brush and found his true calling. For Harris really is a rarity among British painters, who by and large, have been informed more by their country's overriding literary tradition than by strictly plastic values causing Rubin Ironside to once note of Paul Nash, 'Although he called himself a constructivist, poetry kept breaking in.'pLike the mere handful of distinguished predecessors to whom he has been compared, Steven John Harris is an exception to the rule. He is an intrepid painter, unafraid to immerse himself in pure form and color, even while tackling subject matter that may strike some as sensational, even tawdry. Sex, the kinkier the better, is a recurring motif in Harris' paintings to a degree that can also remind one of D.H.Lawrence, the British novelist and poet who took up painting and was as explicit with his brush as with his pen.pThe difference, however, is that while Lawrence got bogged down in literary literalism in his paintings of couples coupling, Harris puts a Neo-Fauvist spin on erotic engagement. Which is to sya, the akimbo limbs, balliatic breasts, phallic protuberances and other anatomically allusive forms that enliven his paintings are as likely to be brilliant yellow, blue, red or purple, as they are flesh-colored. And they are often cropped at abrupt angles that lend paintings such as 'Blue Boner Subject', 'Pisces and Venus' and Surmise a Guise' ( a particularly daring picture suggestin a manage a trois between a purple man, a pink lady, and a red canine) a dynamic abstract quality.pbrIn fact Harris' pictures hit you like a perceptual one-two punch: first you're struck by the forms and colors, then floored by what appears to be going on.pOne could say that Harris provides the perfect combination of pure plasticity and polymorphous perversity. For his part, the artist feigns innocence, playing the Andy Capp card, providing perfect sound bites, saying things like, 'I'm just a working class lad who works as a scaffolder,' and 'freud would have a good time with me...Sometimes even I'm shocked or disturbed by what comes out.'pBut the truth is that Steven John Harris is a consummately sophisticated painter - a natural, as they say. For although he never attended art school or paid particular attention to the trends in contemporary art, his paintings are not only remarkably in tune with the cheeky attitudes one sees among much youger, much more self-conscious painters today, but are seemingly informed by older, weightier aesthetic values as well. indeed, while harking back to Matisse and Nolde - as well as painters such as Jacob Lawrence and Bob Thompson - Harris's formal permutations of the figure and the bold, flat areas of vibrant, singing color seem intuitive rather than derivative.pSomehow this self-affacing scaffolder from across the pond has turned himself, in his spare time, into a remarkably savvy painteer. Several equally savvy collectors have already acquired his paintings, making it possible for him to at least start thinking about quitting his day job, and Montserrat Gallery has given him its vote of confidence by scheduling his second solo show so close on the heels of his first. This is an unusual occurrence in the New York art scene, where the major solo shows are uaually few and far between. But then again, Steven john Harris, is a most unusual artist.p- Ed McCormack*

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