Wesenburg Museum 2011

by Marlena Donahue

Theorist Frederick Jameson describes our 21st century as inviting a sort of schizophrenia, requiring that we make and remake the world out of a disengaged barrage of imagistic selves and virtual "now's. 

Painter Mark Harrington makes his permanent home-studio in the sensorial drama of wooded German farmlands. Raised be­tween the US and England, traveling, teaching and exhibiting on just about every continent, the tri-lingual, undeniably cos­mopolitan Harrington elects to live, think and most important for this consideration, create art in place of extreme realness . . a place he tellingly describes as "dotted with lakes whose waters are a chalky black silt against the skin." 

This is not picturesque biography; it is a rich clue to an art practice and a life insistently enacted, perceived, operational. 

By stark contrast to the above, most of us inhabit existentially and psychologically a heavily mediated global culture where 

'experience' (actually its stand in) is rarely felt "on the skin" as it were, It is instead projected/extrapolated almost halo­graphically from a limited array of pre packaged representations/brands/simulacra, more or less masquerading as free choice (i.e. free commerce), but increasingly removed from anything embodied or real. 

The role of painting, of paint itself as either viable or anachronistic, how paint will function and what it can convey in this massly homogenized, fully digitized era are questions that bear directly on Harrington's work and artistic process. 

Paint for Harrington is first and foremost an activity. Harrington's paintings, the wood substrates that he carefully builds to contain pigments, as well as the spaces his works hang in and activate are above all else to be sensed. All these are con­ceived it seems by Harrington to be material, tangible, to be applied, sanded, scraped, penetrated, made transparent or opaque, bifurcated and unified in the most mindfully physical way so as to generate fairly direct somatic, tactile kinesthetic events in both maker and viewer. 

The agenda here, as they say on the street, is "keeping it real," with all the "bodied forth" and emotive charge implied in that vernacular use. 

His focus places Harrington in direct and intelligent dialogue with changes in culture and art beginning in the 50s and 60s. Serious thinker-creators like Cage, Shiraga, Kaprow, Acconci, Klein and most prominently the German Beuys realized each in their sphere that media and icon brokers -- ads to newsprint, museums to academies, films to TV - imagined (which is to say mandated) for us our identity, selfhood, values, desires, notions beauty and, of course, definitions of art. 

The first and fastest reflex to this was to jettison the premier social code for "high art:" abstract painting. In its place "Hap­penings," real bodies, lived space, the passage of real time, sounds, daily routines, in your face urban junk became the un­avoidably sensual fodder from which art ought to be fashioned. 

Lucy Lippard referred to this as the inevitable "dematerialization" (i.e. intentional disappearing) of the obsolete and contest­ed "white wall" holding the gild-frame. Rich critique of abstract painting ignited profound, lasting art innovation; it did not deter the press of our techno-mediated living, nor did it in any manner end the fascination artists and viewers have for paint. 

Harrington's work evolves in this aesthetic and social history in smart ways. His approach and ideas recharge but do not un­dermine the painterly. For this artist (and others of similar ilk, like the late Blinky Palermo), painting and paint itself are not spectatorial display artifacts, they are first and foremost necessarily performed and phenomenological - at every level of producing and apprehending them as art. 

This begins with very physical, intensely hands-on construction of the wood surfaces Harrington manufactures to paint on­more architectural armatures than surfaces. With the careful muscularity of a master wood worker (Harrington made profes­sional finished furniture), he builds two identical rectangles a little thicker than a canvas. These "diptych" parts are abutted via super clean faceting into one vertical surface with a thin barely perceptible seam at the center. By the care and detail of their execution, by virtue of the subtle seam at the center that goes in and out of awareness in finished pieces, Harrington seems to focus himself and us on the undeniable objecthood of the painted surface; his works have a funny way of dislodging our default expectations that a "painting" necessarily means flat inactive linen on top of which composed and still color 

"rests" and then "represents." 

The composite, fairly large scale rectangle he manufactures is sanded and sanded, then covered with unifying layers of gesso then sanded again and again to a Renaissance fresco finesse. On this absorbent surface, Harrington paints fee handed liq­uidly horizontal bands, here translucent, there matte, alternating in subtly keyed harmonies from dark (creating a kind of shadow) to incandescent colors. Also as in fresco, colors are laid down in complex layers with great speed while the fast drying gesso is still wet, so pigment is taken into the surface and binds not on it, but (also as in fresco) inside it. Colors both look and are inseparable from the physical structures that hold them. 

To get the super nuanced transitions/interactions between opacity and transparency, between hardish edge and color-over­color bleed upon which the physicality of this work relies, Harrington works fast and in fee hand, so that however controlled, perfected via practice the process may be, there is a quick, unpremeditated intuition ever at play against his conceived design. 

This process of discovery-in-doing isn't necessarily the stuff of surrealist automatism, or Ab Ex existentialist seeking, but endemic to the demands of his technique, his materials and his body. 

As a final step Harrington covers painted bands and the fields they hover in with another semi transparent, somewhat milky pigment that further veils color, mitigates edges, binds the gesso in selective ways before it is wiped off still wet. What this does is enmesh image and object further, blur yet more the traditional interactions between 2 and 3 dimensions that defined pre Modern and Modern painting. The plastic effect is to send the paint even further "back," exaggerate our awareness that color -i.e image-and wood are one. 

His process places Harrington in good post modern company: the most vital painting today underscores image-as-object aes­thetics. Interestingly enough, his particular way of envisioning the role of mark-making arcs much further back to Roman-Re­naissance fresco, where the abstraction of "a picture" was not conceived nor apprehended as separate from the literality of the architecture. (As we know, the "pulled out of real time," or timeless fetishized canvas is late 19th century idea.) 

Germane to post modern embodiment, and reminding us that there is nothing so very new under the sun, the whole purpose of earliest frescos was never to paint a picture, but to bind paint plus architecture in the most sensorially convincing way; tromp l'oeil wall-bound decor, columns, windows and outdoor gardens viewed through them were intended to be above all acutely experiential, to surround and enlist the whole body-just the opposite impact of passive museum viewing or your i­phone. 

As does Harrington, wet fresco artists worked on small sections quickly, filling in details spontaneously from vague sketches buried behind the layer of opaque, color-holding clay. This method according to Vasari was the only way to achieve what he saw as buono fresco's true intent: making almost living images able to stir the body and the feelings as only life can. (He called dry fresco a second order art precisely because the paint lies on top of the wall and is not made a part of space.) 

Harrington's images have just that way of rather directly mobilizing spatial and emotional circuitry; though not precisely ar­chitectural, they have a way of speaking to our up-right stature, of triggering (more than depicting) certain pleasure-loss, order-making, meaning-finding human responses. The bands can suggest landscapes, horizon lines, clouds, seas, the forces of earth and elements, like the waves made by electricity, prismatic color or sound when "seen" via hi tech devices, but Har­rington seems to intentionally stop evocation just before our natural inclination towards narrative, or story line. 

A deeply literate artist, Harrington is not silly enough censure the inevitably metaphoric nature of the human psyche, but he does seem to be most concerned with how content and deep emotional responses to art emanate from properties of tangible form and experienced space. 

The remote but readable references to classical axes and geometry that we find in this work have a way of temporarily fixing our geographic and emotive attention (in this dizzying post modernity where, as Foucault has said, the "order of things" is fluxing, arbitrary). While tethering us, the lateral spread of marks suggests a trajectory that extends out past the painted surface into the real-time environment of the viewer, of the architecture and beyond. 

As we interact with them, these works then manage to inscribe us in space and time at a cultural moment when we least can rely on either of those old comforts; here we ought to note that situating humans with certainty has been at the heart of maps, history, Euclid, Newton, 1-point perspective, Descartes' coordinates, the modernist grid, science, the very concept of the self. Conversely, a Harrington painting suggests in us that state of being fully open-ended; here we must also note that confronting infinite expansion has been at the heart of religion, mysticism, philosophy, quantum mechanics, string theory, Derrida's "infinitely deferred" semiotics, our hyperlinked web-world, and --yes, again -- the very construct of the self. 

Which is to argue for the lasting depth, breadth and timelines of this work. 

Today we take for granted that we are inevitably made of matter and images. Less well addressed is the precise and complex way this constructed existence interacts with and reconciles itself to the basic fact of our irrevocable embodiment. You can Friend me and Google me, Skype conference me or cyber sex me, but ultimately we humans know it is the flesh that feels, creates, desires, propels, seeks communion and shelter, fails at same, decays, recoups and eventually (though as they say "the virtual never dies") will be no more. 

Harrington as a person and a poet gets this boggle at its most weird and tender core. His visually lyrical striations locked inside their object like supports produce basic visceral, spatio-perceptual, psychic-social (perhaps anthropological) feelings rooted not simply in the abstraction of humanity but in the really liminal and mysterious unfolding experience of being human. Harrington 's paintings 'understand' (in the intuitive yet deliberate way that good art breathes in the exigencies of its social milieu) this very complex, uncharted moment in our existential, phenomenological, technological human arc; his work has a way of making manifest, as a sensed awareness our quirky post modern plight -real and represented, exhilarating and terrifying. 

Marlena Donahue is a curator and professor of history of art living in Los Angeles