Submitted Review

Brent Harris ‘Monster Theatres’

  • Art Gallery of South Australia • Adelaide

  • 27 February—07 June 2020

  • Marielle Soni • Published 17 May 2020

Monsters can lose their potency under an appraising gaze. Secrets exposed can break chains, freeing those bound by fears. Sometimes.

We have come to know Harris’ work over his decades long practice of painting and printmaking. Stark contoured flat planes, often monochromatic. Somewhat abstract, or at least fooling us into thinking so. Images revealing more of its form to say – ha, tricked you – so you feel precariously balanced just on the uncomfortable precipice of recognition.

In Monster Theatres we see 26 oil paintings from his Grotesquerie series created between 2001 – 2009.  Edges of canvases disappear against the infinite blackness of the walls. Dark shadows are interrupted by intense illuminations of mysterious scenes. Anthropomorphic figures are strange. Simplified lines, blocks of stark white shapes. The exaggerated portrait format intensifies the illusion of dripping, melting, oozing plasma. Gelatinous, thick milt spilling and rising into being. Fat, greedy lips sucking, blowing, consuming everything in its path. We are intruders. Voyeurs in an intimate dreamscape, or nightmare.

A deeply perplexing, engaging collection. My only doubt? Perhaps it would have benefited from a more restrained hang.

Presented with a collection of exquisite monotypes I am transported to images of Goyaesque nightmares but with an awareness of modern psychoanalysis. The subconscious rising in vaporous ghostly heads combined with the magic of horror. Interestingly these images on paper display more complicated compositions and details than their canvas companions, evocative intimacy.

Harris’ more recent paintings meld the positive and negative. The yellow haired figure sees. Black opaque backgrounds become lighter with sfumato techniques. The light is spreading. We can see more. And we see death. We also see accents of pinks, purples, blues. Colour is seeping in as the unflinching eye elucidates complexities. Compositionally necessary as well, as we see the solitary figure in black silhouette: shamed, aroused, seen…. freed…?

Monsters do what monsters do best – nurture fear. It is their source of strength.

Do monsters ever die? “The monster, the father, the self”, says Harris. The contours of ghoulish protagonists morph into figuration from the abyss into the light. Family portraits best left unseen. But then that’s how the monsters win. Illuminate the monsters. Force them from the shadows to be condemned.