Brent Harris

A World of Pictures, My Own and Others: Brent Harris Responds to Artworks in the Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

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Throughout his 40-year practice, Brent Harris has developed a distinctive visual language to address universal and highly personal concerns including desire, sexuality, familial relationships, mortality, identity, and spirituality. Layering intuitive dreamlike imagery and art-historical references, his paintings and prints offer fluid narratives of meaning that are charged with emotional intensity.

In the below article, Harris responds to artworks in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki that have informed works on display in Brent Harris: The Other Side. Speaking about the influence of other artists and artworks in his practice, Harris has shared that he ‘live[s] in a world of pictures, my own and others’ – read on to learn more about some of the artworks orbiting in his intricate, interconnected visual universe.

Here We Give Thanks to Kelly, 1988–2018

Here We Give Thanks to Kelly, 1988–2018 is a reworking of an image that I first used 30 years ago. At that time I was quite busy quoting, referencing, and acknowledging in my work the artists I most admired.

This small painting embraces three artists I was particularly focused on at that time: Ellsworth Kelly, Colin McCahon and Piet Mondrian. The primary origin of this work was a small drawing by Ellsworth Kelly. I loved the way it also brought to mind McCahon’s Necessary Protection, 1971, though my small painting and Kelly's drawing are composed of whites on a black ground, whereas McCahon’s are most often black on white. But all share a flattened space, with high contrasts but little modelling.

The other work that comes to mind most obviously is McCahon’s Here I give thanks to Mondrian, 1961. It is an exception in his practice, I believe, as McCahon was not known for acknowledging his influences. Suffice to say that this painting jumped out at me. As my Auckland Art Gallery exhibition, The Other Side makes obvious, my work ranges over a vast array of art-historical influences and references, which I’m not shy of acknowledging.

Here We Give Thanks to Kelly, 1988–2018 is an important early painting for me. Regarding its lineage, it carries two dates, as the first version from 1988 was so badly damaged (now destroyed) that in 2018 I decided to remake it.

The Stations, 1988, The Stations, 2020–21

<p>Brent Harris,&nbsp;<em>The Stations</em>, 1988, etching, aquatint, colour aquatint, roulette, soft ground, burnished aquatint, plate-tone, plate-tone printed&nbsp;&aacute; la poup&eacute;e,&nbsp;on loan from Patricia Mason and Paul Walker, Melbourne</p>

Brent Harris, The Stations, 1988, etching, aquatint, colour aquatint, roulette, soft ground, burnished aquatint, plate-tone, plate-tone printed á la poupée, on loan from Patricia Mason and Paul Walker, Melbourne

<p>Colin McCahon,&nbsp;<em>The Fourteen Stations of the Cross</em>, 1966, synthetic polymer paint on 14 sheets of paper on cardboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 1981</p>

Colin McCahon, The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 1966, synthetic polymer paint on 14 sheets of paper on cardboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 1981

The Stations of the Cross recounts Christ’s final journey towards death, imaged in a sequence of 14 episodes.

My initial engagement with this subject was made at the height of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, when I came to recognise this perennial religious story as a ready-made narrative for what was happening in my own world. The narrative of a young man judged in a morning, dead by afternoon.

My 1989 series of The Stations was inspired by numerous art-historical explorations of this subject, most significantly Colin McCahon’s rendition, The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 1966, in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, and a series of large abstract paintings by his American peer, Barnett Newman, from 1958–66.

While my 1989 series are resolutely abstract, I did attempt a connection with the subject both symbolically and psychologically. In the sequence of events Christ falls three times under the weight of his cross (Stations no. 3, 7, 9); with each fall his ego is diminished, so by the time he is nailed up (Station no.11), he is becoming tired of his burden and a little more resigned to his fate. A young person going to death is far more resistant, resentful of an early exit; an older person moving toward death is starting to tire of the flagging body.

There are two acts of kindness in the story. In Station no.5, Simon helps carry the Cross; we all carry the burden of each other’s death. In Station no.6 Veronica wipes the face of Christ, usually portrayed historically as a spot of blood on Veronica’s hanky as she presses her cloth to his face.

In my 1989 series I represent no. 6 as a river of blood. As context, in relation to the AIDS pandemic, blood had become bad – the 'blood rule', for example, had come into sport and a much wider social context.

In the catalogue for his 1972 survey exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery, McCahon stated that he felt his Fourteen Stations of the Cross was still too abstract. As an artist responding to these works, I questioned his reserve.

<p>Brent Harris,&nbsp;<em>The Stations</em>, 2020&ndash;21, oil on linen,&nbsp;courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington. Installation view <i>Brent Harris</i><em>: The Other Side</em>, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2023.&nbsp;</p>

Brent Harris, The Stations, 2020–21, oil on linen, courtesy of the artist and Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington. Installation view Brent Harris: The Other Side, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2023. 

My more recent series of The Stations from 2020–21 are much more figurative. In fact over time it has become obvious I am a figurative artist, though hardly a realist. This newer series introduces subtle figurative elements, and significantly a gentle pink coloration into the austerity of the narrative, whilst keeping description in a fluid state.

And what of the pink in the new series? Happen chance? As a coda, it appears that in an archived article McCahon describes the colour pink as being the colour of dawn – the new beginning, the colour of the resurrection. The narrative of the Stations ends with the entombment. I had until that moment not thought of the Stations in relation to a resurrection, but there it is, in mine, in pink.

Peaks (To the River), 2019

Peaks (To the River), 2019 obliquely references Petrus Van der Velden’s painting Mount Rolleston and the Otira River, 1893.

When I was young, my family would regularly visit museums and galleries around the lower part of the North Island, including the National Gallery (now Te Papa) in Wellington. I remember my father particularly loving the power and darkness of Van der Velden’s paintings of Otira Gorge.

As a boy in Palmerston North, after a heavy snow, and from a vantage point on the roof of the house, both Mount Taranaki and Ruapehu could be seen – this double vision has inspired the series of Peaks paintings I have worked on over the last few years.

I love how in many of Van der Velden’s paintings there are passages of paint that break from the descriptive and just sit on the surface as patches of paint. This painting of the Otira Gorge in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki was a direct influence on Peaks (To the River). I have lifted the paint patches that sit in the middle of the Van der Velden and repeated them on the side of my mountain peak, at lower right.

Commenting on my peaks paintings, Gallery curator Sarah Farrar observed that through all of my paintings the landscape is generally not addressed – until the Peaks paintings, which have a direct link to the New Zealand landscape.

The Gate, the Mirror, 1988

My painting of 1988, The Gate, the Mirror draws much of its imagery, and title, from two artists: Colin McCahon and Jasper Johns. 

Colin McCahon’s Gate 10 is from his Gate series of 1961. I have always read this series as being an invitation offered by the artist to enter, to pass through the gate, or at least make an attempt at passing through to the other side. This invitation is spelt out most clearly in The Second Gate Series, 1962, on panel no.10:


Prepare the way

Cry aloud

Spare not

Go through

Go through the


Jasper Johns’s painting Corpse and Mirror holds the initial source for the cross-hatching that appears in my painting. But more than this, the title refers to death –  the corpse – and the idea of the mirror as something one looks into, an invitation to look beyond the self, to see beyond the self to face death.

My The Gate, the Mirror is a standalone painting, not part of a series. Its intent ultimately is as a reference to a passage through to another side, either to another [form of] consciousness or death.