Gregory Frank Harris has painted in a number of styles and genres thus far in his career. “My art and influences are all inclusive,” he says with an expansiveness worthy of Walt Whitman, who famously declared, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”
Harris cites influences ranging from seventeenth century Dutch landscape painters to the French Impressionists, to the Fauves and other Postimpressionists, to first and second generation abstract expressionists, to contemporaries Wolf Kahn, Stuart Shils, and Eric Aho. “Many of my most recent paintings, “he observes, “seem to combine 19th century Tonalism with 21st century Abstraction.”
The Tonalists he refers to are most noted for interpreting intimate landscape scenes using a limited color scale—a dominant tonal theme with variations—to suggest some overall atmosphere or mood. Like the Impressionists who eventually eclipsed them in popularity, the Tonalists took landscape as a point of departure. Physical details are rendered in soft focus—blurred and abstracted to varying degrees—so that the particulars of the scene give way to a study of light, color, and form.
The Tonalists’ interest in atmosphere is clearly reflected in Harris’s landscapes. He often seems to reverse our normal perspective, bringing air and sky to the foreground while landscape features recede into the distance behind them. In many of these paintings, the air itself seems to be visible, saturated with color to suggest a saturation with moisture—fog, mist, heavy humidity, patches of suspended rain, bands of cloud. And having mastered various versions of visible atmosphere, he has also mastered their opposite—the crystalline clarity of New Mexico’s air and light in late winter and early spring.
For the past several years, Harris has been exploring the use of the window squeegee as an artist’s tool (a technique he discovered through the German painter Gerhard Richter). To find suitable images,” he says, “I will go directly to nature and paint the scene from life, or use photography, or at times, my imagination. I develop the paintings with several techniques in which I begin an underpainting using large brushes and heavy impasto to render the colors and pictorial design. Then, with different sized squeegees, I go over the wet paint to ‘blur’ the forms, leaving elements of the underpainting to show through.”
Where the Tonalists blurred images slightly, perhaps tentatively, Harris blurs them boldly. There is boldness too in the way he allows elements of the “scene from life” to show through—boldness because for much of the past century, the art world thought of abstraction as something opposed to representation. Paintings were either representational or non-representational, figurative or non-figurative. In Harris’s landscapes, abstract and representational elements coexist quite naturally. In fact, they work together beautifully. The interplay between them is a major point of interest in Harris’s current work, and it suggests a promising direction in which “21st century Abstraction” might be heading.