SERENE BEAUTY AND TOXIC DESIRE
(THE PAINTINGS OF ANDY HARPER)

Text: Mark Gisbourne

Viens-tu ciel profond ou sors-tu de l'abîme,
O Beauté ton regard, infernal et divin,
Verse confusément le bienfait et le crime,
Et l'on peut pour cela te comparer au vin.

Charles Baudelaire (1821 – 1867)
Hymne A La Beauté (Les Fleurs du Mal)1

 

There is a challenging visual paradox found at the heart of all forms of beauty, and we are necessarily drawn like a magnet towards its hidden condition and ambivalent presence. In the same context Andy Harper’s paintings express a visually powerful immediacy of compelling beauty and toxic seduction. While Harper’s imagination must never be considered simply as that of a painter of flowers and nature, his paintings nonetheless possess those qualities of cosmological florescence that flowers and/or the allusion to flora are able to generate and display. There has always been a culturally projected or imagined universal language attached to flowers and pictorial florescence, a continuous history of botanical imagery that encompasses numerous different ideas of regeneration and degeneration. The transcendent aspect of flowers have been seen in terms either of an imagined paradise, heaven is often considered as flower-strewn, and conversely the entropic aspect points to human endings since they are also accompanied by the cut flowers of arrested life. I have no intention to be deliberately mawkish about things, but merely to express the state of ambivalence that flowers play between life and death, between beauty and decadence, or between presence and passage.

Hence if Harper’s paintings at first strike the eye as vivacious and celebratory, this should not displace their other darker propensities towards suffusion and subterranean undertones. While it is undeniable fact that nature not only gives and sustains life, at the same time it simultaneously measures, defines, and limits the parameters of a human existence. Instances of imaginative and creative existence are often witnessed and defined by abundance of florescence, that is to say the simple act, condition, or period of blooming, and that beauty and blooming are poetically synonymous. But in order to be so beauty must always exist in relation to light, and it is light that forms the basis for speaking of the Harper’s cosmological florescence (as luminous qualities) found in this artist’s paintings. If we ally this to their pictorial sense of mysterious evanescence and allusive depth, we come closer to experiencing something of Andy Harper’s immediate sensibility.

The paintings of Andy Harper make this array of contrary sensations seem almost palpable. And if the artist’s earlier paintings sometimes referenced the writings of one of his favourite science-fiction writers J. G. Ballard, it was not so much for the purposes of any narrative description, but based simply on their shared psychical pre-dispositions and emotional affinities. That is to say to Ballard’s equally ambivalent position towards the utopian and dystopian, a shared affinity as to the atopia of an imagined existence. In the painting called Transatlantic Oscillation the use of a subterranean centripetal florescence is striking, as forms expand and enfold, mutate and flow into each other as if both subject to one another and in the grip of an oceanic drift. It is clear that the contents should not be read simply in floral-related terms, but as if part of an undetermined vegetal-floral world in a continual state of transmogrification. It is this fantastic aspect allied to shifting but veiled visual membranes of depth and illusion that gives Harper’s images their potency. Through the use of paint the artist is able to create brush-based surface rhythms, and these rhythms of paint application stress a painterly feeling of an elastic rather than just a plastic sense of representation.

In the painting Dark Hands small figurative fish-like elements inveigle their way into the overall florescent matrix. These frequently used pictorial asides give the paintings a sense of visual punctum, and the eye is drawn thereby in to the miasma-like subterranean space of what is to all intents and purposes an imaginary cosmos. In this way the dizzying effect that follows draws the viewer into experiencing not only the extraordinary detail within the paintings, but at the same time creates a sense of visual disorientation. Yet again it also directs the viewer into a psychological dream state of immersion within the transmogrified fantasy. Harper’s use of visual or pictorial metamorphosis implies, as the word suggests, transformation (imaginatively by magic of sorcery) not only within the painting but within that which takes place in the viewer. The viewer becomes drawn into a web of contradictory sensations, the first seeking to identify the painting's contents, and the second a drowning effect or loss of focus. It is in this way that the paintings possess the beauty that I contend. As Marcel Proust long ago observed beauty exists in detachment, whereas desire exists in a deferred reality of the fixation that must first be aesthetically framed. It is the core idea of the Kantian and post-Kantian notions of what constitutes the beautiful. In viewing the paintings of Harper we find ourselves in a continuous state of detached recognition and emotional deferral. The mechanism of desire is seduction, and it is the use of a visual transduction that generates the dark side of beauty. It forms the paradox and diabolic difference that Baudelaire so lucidly recognised.

More recently there has been a shift in Harper’s paintings away from nature and the immediate sense of florescence into specific iconographies that are derived from the history of painting. The painting called Merry-Go-Round, takes its inspiration from Mark Gertler’s famous painting of 1914, which bears the same title.2 The intention of Harper is to use the historical source as a loose referent or structural underpinning, and thereafter transfigure the surface contents through active processes of pictorial mutation. As the artist puts it “the paintings are chosen for their overall sensibility – not purely for formal reasons but not solely for their art historical (academic) readings either.” The notion of optical florescence in these instances is more subdued
creating a transient veil across the surface of the painting. Hidden within are objects, a hat retained from a female carrousel figure, the floor and uprights that support the roof of the carrousel, and other cornucopian allusions that further emphasise the dialectic of interior structure and surface mutation. A human figure is also retained (perhaps a reference to Gertler himself), while the carrousel horses have dissolved into the eddying effect of metamorphosis. There is also nonetheless a retained sense of submersion, and it is undeniable that the aquatic world haunts the life of Andy Harper. Since he lives and works part of the time in Cornwall this is hardly surprising. Much could be made of the extraordinary technical facility of the artist in the execution of his paintings. But to do so denies what is far more essential to Harper's paintings, namely the active and transformative potential of a creative sensibility. Harper’s love of fantasy is its own civilised justification, for as Marcuse long ago observed “… Phantasy plays the most decisive function in the total mental structure: it links the deepest layers of the unconscious with the highest products of consciousness (art), the dream with the reality …”3 It is the reconciliation that dwells within the general paradox of beauty, Baudelaire's 'sparkling wine' of the imagination.

 

1
“O Beauty ! dost thou generate from Heaven or from Hell, Within thy glance, so Diabolic and Divine, Confusedly both wickedness and goodness dwell, And Hence one might compare thee unto sparkling wine…..” Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) Hymn to Beauty (The Flowers of Evil)
2
Mark Gertler (1891-1939) was a British Jewish painter who committed suicide by gassing himself in his London studio. He was a lifelong pacifist and conscientious objector during the First World War and painted his painting Merry-Go-Round in part as a critique of the war, and also evincing his distaste and contempt for the contemporary class patronage of art. In 1939, his wife left him, and in a continuously depressed state about the imminent Second World War (and also influenced perhaps by the earlier deaths of his mother and the unrequited love of the painter Dora Carrington – both committed suicide in 1932) he took his own life. He is one of the characters (Loerke, and artist from Dresden) of D.H.Lawrence's ‘Women in Love’ (1920), and the famous novelist was a champion of Gertler’s work. See, Sarah MacDougall, Mark Gertler, London, John Murray Publishers, 2002.
3
Herbert Marcuse, ‘Phantasy and Utopia’ in Eros and Civilisation, New York and London, 1969 (and subsequent editions) p. 119  “…it preserves the archetype of the genus, the perpetual but repressed ideas of the collective and individual memory, the tabooed images of freedom.”