Words by Martin Holman
Culture, nature, nurture, artifice – four steps into the painting of Andy Harper.
In Andy Harper’s studio overlooking Porthmeor beach in St Ives, several large, round panels are stacked against the walls. Each has an all-over yellow surface. These are paintings in waiting; not started yet but primed, sanded and ready to go.
The preparatory stage of making a painting is important. The coloured ground is sanded smooth and, with its luminosity, provides the launch pad for another image. In Harper’s current phase of working, that means a dense and luscious, chromatically vibrant composition. Pulsating colours reach to the edge and paint appears to move, curl, twist and roll like a mellifluous language spoken in full array. A variety of brush sizes means marks of different densities appear to glide at varying speeds with sensuous ease to leave a glossy sheen as if still wet.
Harper is a sportsman as well as an artist. He enjoys controlled movement and moments of acceleration. As a surfer, he knows the exhilaration that accompanies giving into an oncoming wave. A similar sensation exists in painting. He says that he does not know how a painting will turn out when he starts. No meticulous drawings guide the way. But then, for this artist, the destination of a finished image is not his only goal. As with surfing, the ride is important: that is when technique comes into play. Thus, making has equal status with the outcome.
At the moment, that outcome is exuberant to the point of opulence. The large round paintings in his current exhibition at Anima Mundi in St Ives resemble exotic arrangements of rapacious tropical flowers. We know that colourful patterns in flowers increase the plants’ success at attracting pollinators to disperse their seed. Scientists now believe that florid designs act like markings on a runway, helping bees coordinate their approach. With this in mind, Harper’s paintings suggest south-east Asian airport hubs at the height of the holiday getaway season. They imply fertile interaction in its fullest form, with reds, greens, yellows, blues and purples in swirling activity animated by a lustrous finish enlivened by light.
But no leaf, stamen or pistil that he creates corresponds to any plant found in nature. Instead forms comply with a generalised image viewers might already have in their imaginations, built on a collage of comparisons that stimulates an idea of nature and beauty – stereotypes that Harper plays with. Patterns repeat themselves over the full revolution of the circular image, as if seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope. Once their contrived appearance is grasped, questions arise about their purpose or origin. Anima Mundi calls this show The Mandalas, relating the look of the work to geometric symbols found in eastern religions that have a spiritual role, establishing a sacred space to aid meditation.
That is one interpretation. There are as many responses as there are people drawn into these remarkable combinations of shape, colour, surface and line. The space the paintings occupy seems to be in front of them, in the same area where the onlooker stands. The colours want to project forward most of the time, as if encouraging the rest of us to pollinate the gallery with individual thoughts about their significance. For the artist, the symmetry and repetition emerge from that ride he takes with his materials, and from the mental space where these paintings exist while they are taking shape in his studio. Moreover, Harper even confronts the thorny question of whether modern painting can appear decorative and decides that it can be. But the work must contain more besides, including elements that might contradict the initial assumption that pleasure is the paramount objective.
Harper might make one painting every day. Some have taken as long as a week to complete. But that is rare because he has to follow the behaviours of the materials he uses. He paints with oil colours that dry slowly, so he can leave a painting overnight and return to it the next day and find the surface is still moist. Wetness is important: this artist works with the alla prima method: a layer of fresh wet paint is laid on top of previous layers that have not yet dried and remain pliable. Artists have painted ‘wet on wet’ for centuries, from Renaissance masters like Jan van Eyck to the Impressionist Vincent van Gogh and on to leading contemporary figures like the German Gerhard Richter. The painter has to work fast and skilfully, adapting the technique to individual circumstances. Hence Harper’s remarkable productivity, which is built upon planning, discipline, labour – and a rich imagination.
As he talks about his work, the practical aspect of making occupies the forefront of the conversation. For instance, he points out that there are paints he cannot use. Colours derived from pigments containing oxides are out because they dry too quickly. But Indian Yellow is definitely in. A favourite of his, its deep and fluorescent tone provides the translucency he prizes. Hence the yellow priming on the unpainted panels: it establishes the pitch other colour choices follow and it stays in the mix as a new painting emerges.
Harper works hard to understand the colours he uses. “If I change the slightest thing, everything changes – for good or not.” So, there are balances to maintain or upset creatively. Talking about a series of paintings he made in the early 1990s that featured only swathes of grass from edge to edge, he speaks about colour and gestures as the key components rather than types of grass. In fact, grass was never his subject; he wanted an all-over, repetitive pattern for the flat surface. Now, as then, those marks have a calligraphic quality: a flick of a brush tip or a hard point can pull away paint to leave the impression of a shift of tone, like light and dark sides to a single stroke. “A simple mark,” he modestly points out, “brings about an effect that can look very sophisticated.”
He says he now has a sense of which tones to choose. But he also benefits from years of teaching art to adults at London’s CityLit after completing his MA at the Royal College of Art in 1996. Colour theory was part of his course although, he adds, “strictly speaking, I am not a theorist when it comes to colour. But colour has its own language and some rules have to be learned. For instance, there is prussian green and sap green, plus how much medium you add with which green. The greens I used are not actually found in grass but respond much more to the common idea of how grass looks. Too much prussian green and the effect is cold: too much sap green and the result is too yellow.” In that same period, he co-founded the NotCut darkroom and studio in London with friends, which involved him in photographic colour mixing.
By now another picture will be forming. From the series of grass paintings, he moved on to blue paintings that had the sea in mind. The work primarily consisted of sequential levels of colour in parallel bands. His inspiration came from surfing, a pastime since his childhood in Torquay. “Every surfer knows,” he says, “that ninety per cent of the sport involves sitting in the water. So, my sea paintings reflected my experience of water, of looking for the slightest inflections of colour and concentrating on the line between them, and between sky and sea.”
Allusion is a factor in Harper’s images, far stronger than representation. Still, it is more helpful to draw out the abstract elements than attempt to describe their association with the world we know. In his studio is a chest of shallow drawers. Open one and neat rows of paint tubes appear (a recent feat of organisation, Harper admits) that are arranged by colour and intensity through the spectrum. This display resembles the keys on a piano or, more appropriately, an organ that allows notes to be mixed into resonant chords.
Indeed, Harper pulls out many of the stops at his disposal. His approach is systematic: the order of tones becomes the basis for building a composition. Harper is a keen record-keeper. He compiles index cards that list the processes he applies in each of his paintings, the colours used and the flexible media he adds to extend a stroke as paint slips from the brush, another instrument critical to the making process.
After the sea paintings, Harper looked to the stars. The spur was a residency in 1996 in the Moroccan town of Asilah, which hosts artists’ workshops and has a stirring view of the Atlas Mountains. The theme occupied him for a year: as the brush loaded with indigo or ultramarine oil pigment mixed with the thinning agent of white spirit travelled over the lighter-coloured surface, small traces of underpainting were left like tiny dots of light. These became the starry constellations, results entirely of a process.
Making creates the theme, with action suggesting a “subject” rather than the other way around. There is never an intended story, with no hidden key to unlock the narrative of his life. The star series was the dispassionate product of a process in which accidental effects can suggest immense scale related to a dimension outside painting. But, he says, “the artwork leads me to be interested in other things. I read books about stars when I was making these paintings and, now, I take a strong interest in the structure of plants because of the floral associations in the current work.”
The move from sky back to ground was precipitated by three events. The first was Harper’s growing awareness of the post-war landscapes by the British painter Graham Sutherland. Suffused with strange, looming natural forms and bitter, acidic colours, they contained latent visual metaphors for a surrealist spirit. Then came a visit in 2005 to Brazil with his partner, artist Abigail Reynolds, where Harper observed how the tropical climate facilitated the speedy growth of luxuriant plant life: a property left vacant a few months might be taken over by exotic flowers alarmingly quickly.
Both encounters brought a subjective element into his perception that the third event accelerated, for he was invited to show in London at the Museum of Garden History with fellow contemporary artists alongside historical images by William Blake. That experience alerted him to “the sensibility of how things grow, for instance when strains are hybridised, and the romantic associations that can release.”
Not that he came unprepared to observing the natural world. His father was a keen gardener in Devon, although he could not name what he grew. Similarly, the richly trailing ground cover of flower and foliage that Harper paints has little to do with horticulture. “Scatter theory, geometry and the choreography of Busby Berkeley, filmed overhead, are more relevant,” Harper says, “and how paint comes off the brush through known, repeated gestures.”
Nonetheless, the new theme did not emerge immediately and followed several months when, sensing he lacked new ideas, he stopped painting entirely. As a modernist principally concerned with technical process, he found his way back by looking at past art, at the zigzag lines, repeated forms and dramatic receding perspective of progressive British painting at the time of WW1. It emphasised dynamic effects and into this solution Harper piled the sources he had already gathered.
The paintings on show in St Ives are the most recent product of that fusion. Their circular format, which underlines the desire to infer movement, seems at first a little disconcerting. Harper seeks out that type of reaction: inspiration comes partly from science-fiction writing, specifically J.G. Ballard’s 1952 novel The Drowned World that anticipates the solar catastrophe so much on people’s minds today. Scientists a century from now research the flora found in a sultry lagoon where the city of London once existed. Indeed, the density of these paintings’ design appears claustrophobic, even threatening. “Those aspects give an edge to the viewer’s expectation of beauty from rich colour.” He even admits to some technical facility: “As a youth, I played drums and was drilled in coordination exercises. I can paint patterns forwards and in reverse. These paintings show that.” Yet that helps draw out the physical element behind these images, an instinctive artistry that spells out the thrill of enjoyment.
Andy Harper: The Mandalas continues at Anima Mundi, St Ives, until 28 August 2023.