Visual Art

Brent Harris returns to the subject that helped build his reputation more than three decades ago, The Stations. By Ashley Crawford.

Brent Harris’s The Stations revamp

Brent Harris’s The Stations 2021.
Credit: Courtesy Brent Harris studio and Tolarno Galleries

In 1989 Brent Harris arrived onto the Melbourne art scene with a stunning exhibition of paintings and prints with the unambiguous title The Stations. The 14 paintings were clearly referencing the Stations of the Cross but, just as importantly, they were also referencing the work of fellow New Zealander artist Colin McCahon. The late ’80s were the age of “quotation” and “appropriation”, and while Harris was most certainly guilty of those tactics, he approached his subject with an exuberance and skill that seemed to belie his youth.

The paintings were accompanied by a series of 14 intaglio prints editioned by master printmaker John Loane. Thirty-two years later, Harris has once again joined forces with Loane to revisit the subject that put him firmly in the spotlight – and what a difference three decades has made. There is nary a hint of McCahon, nor of the other key influence on Harris at the time, the American artist Barnett Newman, who also tackled the subject of the Stations in the early to mid-’60s via harsh minimalist abstraction.

The “new” Stations, while maintaining Harris’s strong graphic sensibility, are a far more emotive affair. In recent decades Harris has become renowned for haunting imagery that drifts between abstraction and figuration and he has engaged in a sustained investigation of the human condition, addressing universal themes such as intimacy, desire, spirituality, sexuality and mortality.

Given that Tolarno Galleries has been closed, the gallery is exhibiting The Stations 2021 online. While perhaps inevitable, this is a shame. Harris is a master at gentle gradations of tone and, working with John Loane, there is a luxurious textuality to these works that does not translate to an online forum. Each sheet, the program tells us, has been “hand coloured with watercolour, making each print unique”. But we are only granted thumbnails of a singular edition, which unfortunately makes it difficult for a viewer to discern what subtle shifts Harris might have made in colouration.

What we do have is a series of indisputably narrative panels of considerable grace, gravity and poignancy.

The digital exhibition features an interview between the artist and curator Jane Devery, in which Harris describes the genesis of the original Stations series from 1989 as reflecting the era of AIDS: “By the late 1980s, the AIDS pandemic was a central narrative in mine and many others’ lives. I recognised the Stations story – Jesus’s final journey to mortal death – as a resonant equivalent narrative. As an artist, particularly one very interested in the metaphoric and spiritual ambitions of Abstract art, it was a question of finding an effective vehicle to describe and to memorialise the journey of loss and ultimate closure. And it is a journey.”

In 2021 AIDS has been replaced by Covid-19, and this iteration of The Stations was produced largely in lockdown. Unlike the 1989 series, with its harsh geometric abstractions, Harris’s latest series seems far gentler and far more literal. At first, as is Harris’s wont, the works may come across as a bizarre Rorschach test, designed to stretch your perceptions or at the least your imaginative abilities. But as each image comes into focus, a clear narrative begins to appear to a point where one can “read” the series as one might a graphic novel.

Harris has long wished to return to the narrative of the Passion. In 2009 he was awarded a three-month Australia Council studio residency in Rome. His initial intention was to work on a new series of the Stations of the Cross, feeling Rome would be an ideal location, but the innumerable distractions of art and architecture sent him in another direction entirely. It has taken the shutdowns of Covid-19, and the introspection they have imposed, for him to return to the epic story.

The first image in the new series could be interpreted as the all-seeing Eye of God, an icon that reappears in images nine and 11. Indeed, in 11 it may be the last vision Christ has before his demise on the Cross. The sixth of Harris’s series carries the unmistakable veil of cloth used by Veronica when she cleaned Christ’s face of blood and sweat, the as-yet unmarked Shroud of Turin.

Indeed, the closer one looks the more literal Harris’s illustrative reading becomes: (1) Jesus is condemned to death, (2) He is made to bear his cross, (3) He falls the first time, (4) He meets his mother, (5) Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross, (6) Veronica wipes Jesus’s face, (7) He falls the second time, (8) the women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus, (9) He falls the third time, (10) He is stripped of his garments, (11) He is nailed to the Cross, (12) He dies on the Cross, (13) He is taken down from the Cross, and (14) He is placed in the sepulchre.

Of course, Harris falls into an innumerable list of artists who have attempted to portray the Passion (from the Latin for “suffering”). The story has been rendered in sculpture, stained glass, painting and works on paper in practically every Catholic Church in the world and is the stuff of nightmares for many a young child. The Passion, or elements of it, have been at the core of works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dürer, Grünewald, Bosch, Bruegel, Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens and Rembrandt. The Passion is seen in Giotto’s frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua, and in Duccio di Buoninsegna’s massive Maestà.

It was the subject of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, George Stevens’ 1965 epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). In short, it is a story with never-ending appeal.

Each artist has taken degrees of liberty with the subject and Harris is no exception. With the 13th Station, rather than depict Christ’s body being taken down from the Cross, Harris renders an abstract beam of light – perhaps Jesus’s ascension to Heaven? And where most have portrayed Jesus’s limp body being placed in the sepulchre, Harris depicts an empty chamber, the covering rock pulled aside. It is a strangely simple, yet optimistic, finale to a gruesome saga that never seems to die.

Whereas Harris’s 1989 Stations was clearly a homage to Barnett Newman and, especially, to Colin McCahon, Harris’s 2021 Stations can be read as essentially a homage to the story of Christ. Overall it is a brave and bold endeavour. 

The Stations 2021 is showing online at Tolarno Galleries.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Passion and grace".

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Ashley Crawford is a writer, critic and former editor of World Art.