The kindest cut. If collage suggests excavation of a sort, locating and recombining existing materials to suggest new images, new meanings, Alfred Harris’ elegant works in his Froelick Gallery show entitled Plots and Plans are a kind of reverse excavation, a layering on of sedimentary layers akin to those one might find on beachside sandstone cliffs or on an untidy desk.
In these large abstract blocked collages there are elements of calligraphy, of mined archive, of cartography generously cushioned with blocks of neutral colors—blank papers sometimes in ivories and sometimes crisscrossed with registration blue grids— that function as wide open space. These are interspersed with blocks of vivid colors such as pumpkin, mustard, vibrant red, and mint green, and even blocks of transparent fabric. The papers are layered, and occasionally, there is a rectangular fragment of a city map lettered in Italian buried beneath another tissued layer. It’s not so simple as all this though; in “Dust bowl Dance” there is the deliberate stroke of the brush in a neutral white buried beneath transparent layers as well as areas where the pale paint’s been allowed to run down in a fence of drips. The final elements in each composition are fragments of a calligraphic gesture by a broad brush on paper, mostly in a coal black or bright red. Harris chops these up so that a curved stroke might trace a fragment of a circumference through its rectangular block.
Only rarely does the abstract brushstroke suggest anything but itself. When it does, it can be letterform or fragment (in “Dust Bowl Dance,” there is a distinct uppercase E) or pathways across a patchwork landscape: sometimes (as in “Trouble at the Cup”) Harris knits together fragments of brushstroke to create a Frankenstein line that meanders across the composition. In “Louise Brooks,” the black L-shaped gesture in the bottom right of the piece clearly suggested the title, mirroring the black sweep of the silent film star’s bob. Suggestive or no, these strokes put the artist (via the swoop of his wrist) in the work, humanizing these hard edged compositions locked behind a thick, glossy layer of resin.
As a body, these “Plans and Plots” are friends (but “it’s complicated”) with Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” paintings as abstract aerial landscapes. But the gestural line fragments complicate these landscapes…just as the black lines we draw on maps are superimposed on actual features of the landscape. And I’m as into that complication as I am into the fact that the choice to fragment these strokes is what makes them interesting: the artist creating his own “found” materials. From a distance, I’m as apt to see these as cobbled together wreckage of roadside commercial signage as anything else. But up close, where you can see the bubbles between the layers of sheer paper ghostly echoing the bleeding black drops of paint, these become more about time and the kind of accumulation of these regular, rectangular fragments that in its complex, shifting, and entangled way is metaphor for the ways meaning is made. That the layers are for the most part not full but empty makes space for possibility. “Give me land lots of land under starry skies above/don’t fence me in.”