What does it mean to hold a view? The idea of holding something evokes arms, an embrace, grasping someone’s warm hand. But to hold a gaze, to hold a view, is a different thing entirely. Does holding the view signal a sustained ocular engagement? Maybe we can think about that which holds the view itself: a person, space or an object upon which that gaze should fall. Or further still, holding a view might denote that viewing is a necessarily embodied action, capable of emulating the function of our limbs. With regard to Neil Harrison’s newest series of works, all of these possibilities engender the tension between the politics of looking and the poetics of objects.
Harrison’s painting practice is a sustained engagement with notions of form, content, design, and symbol. He creates simple, clean, architecturally compelling compositions that despite their precision, often propose a challenge to the ways in which they are looked at, perceived and processed. Harrison’s works masquerade under the aesthetic of well-known symbols, but are really productions of an artistic imagination: a language playfully void of any context outside the borders of the canvas. They elicit a spark of recognition that is swiftly thwarted in its emptiness as the symbols refer to nothing but themselves. In this way, Harrison draws attention to the currency of symbols in the economy of our visual world, suggesting that we should perhaps be more cognizant of the instinctive connections often made between form and meaning.
In his latest series of paintings, Harrison probes this issue further; his palette of subdued pop colours—soft tangerine, unassuming sky-blue, warm rose and pastel green—welcome a dream-like consideration. This visual hospitality, in combination with the design-like puzzle of abstract forms, carves out an environment that invites, enables, and even commands a sustained look. Even though our world is littered with dizzying late-capitalist graphic production, Harrison’sforms, reminiscent of the innumerable products of such a machine, behave differently; their invented arrangement, and concealed internal logic, compels the urge to make sense yet denies the possibility of ever making it. In this way, these works are engineered to hold the gaze.
Yet, where does the agency of this gaze lie? Typically, the politics of looking have focused on the dynamic of privilege and power inherent in the looker, and how such power is met—sometimes subversively or confrontationally—by the subject or object being gazed upon. What is most interesting about Harrison’s newest paintings is that they are seemingly able to flip this dynamic. In their ability to invite a sustained visual and cognitive engagement, they might claim the agency of the gaze for their own. Perhaps in this way, it is not us holding our own gaze, but the smooth contours of Harrison’scompositions that hold it instead.
Neil Harrison has exhibited his paintings in Canada, the UK, and Switzerland. He completed his MFA at York University, and a Bachelor of Science at the University of Victoria. Recent solo exhibitions include Fields at Art Mûr in Montréal, and Nature at Angell Gallery in Toronto. In 2013 he received honourable mention in the 15th Annual RBC Canadian Painting Competition.