Andrew Harris at Studio 21, Halifax
By Jon Claytor
I walked through the doors of Studio 21’s exhibition of large oil paintings by Andrew Harris and entered an alternate universe of saturated colours, fantastic adventures, and marvelous landscapes. Presented in collaboration with Katzman Art Projects, Chance Encounters Beyond the Periphery is vivid, surreal, and mystical. Imagine playing the hit videogame Zelda on mushrooms. I was mesmerized. I wanted to get lost in this strange new land and roam joyfully through its metaphorical worlds. My first impression was overwhelmingly delightful. But beneath the exuberant layers lay an unrevealed darkness, a hint of Dante’s Inferno threatening this Nintendo wonderland.
As I got my bearings and began my journey, I realized I was following a fearless character named Happy on an epic quest, progressing from one level to the next and overcoming all obstacles. Go On…Take Flight shows our hero about to make a daring jump from one cliff ledge to another. Below is hell. Above is heaven. And we are left to wonder if Happy will survive the leap of faith. It’s a classic videogame predicament, but also a metaphor for life. And here lies the darkness and the key to the work. You see, there is a companion comic book for the exhibition concerning the loss of a sibling to suicide. It is dedicated to the artist’s own brother. This put the work into a completely new perspective. After letting the finality of the inspiration sink in, I took a second look at the paintings. In the dream world of a videogame, you get to return after death to try again. Harris is asking for a second chance, not only for his brother, but also for himself. In a way these paintings offer him an opportunity to explore a different future.
All the symbolism is deeply private and yet I felt as if I could relate. I couldn’t quite label the precise intent of the tiger and angel in Above the Floating Isle is a Cloud or the meaning of the missing shoe in several other paintings, but I felt invited to create my own mythology for Harris’s iconography. This has the effect of opening up the paintings for a personal interpretation, to partake in a dialogue as if the paintings were asking: How do you feel about this? Would you like to talk about it? Are you okay? And although it must be the artist’s brother he most yearns to speak with, the viewer is also generously brought into the conversation.
Two pieces hit the hardest. If Only Yesterday Took Place Today is a portrait of a young man sitting on a pedestal; a dragon glides past him and several precious objects lie at his feet. Were they lost or were they given away? He is also missing a shoe. Who and what it represents is a haunting mystery I can’t stop thinking about. A Glimpse Through Time depicts a collection of objects: a pair of shoes, various plastic toys, and a blanket, featuring the iconic characters Mario and Luigi, draped as a backdrop. The painting is a beautiful tribute to childhood and the inclusion of the two famous brothers is heartbreaking. I couldn’t help but imagine Harris and his brother playing video games together for hours.
Have you ever wished that life was like a video game, and if you made a mistake, you could just start over? That you could try and try again to overcome an obstacle? What if you could say the things that went unsaid? What if you could have a second chance to change the past? These paintings give Harris that chance to reimagine the future. They ask the viewer to take the opportunity to connect, share, and talk with their loved ones about difficult subjects before it is too late. Harris makes his point by inviting us into his world. First by showing us beauty and joy, but then by asking us to look beneath. His paintings and the accompanying comic book ask us to appreciate the beauty of life, but also to talk about the darkness, together, and with love.
Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick