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A rural, otherworldly (or other-timely) tenor marks Midnight Everywhere, Alexander Harrison’s current exhibition at Various Small Fires. Harrison depicts tightly-rendered vistas, zeroing in on fruit, flowers, and occasional faces, typically from the vantage of a window frame. This “frame” bounds the edges of several works, rendered as a craggy wooden border suggestive of a raw opening in a premodern dwelling. The dreaminess and wander of Harrison’s depictions form a story of a sleepless, if not wholly uncomfortable night, full of awe, hunger, and bloom, as well as trouble that turns to tacit pain in the teary eyes of Counting Sheep (all works 2021).
Just by Chance shows a hinged window opening onto a rolling, foggy hill; a streak in the pane reads as either a falling star or a light-reflecting smear of grease on the glass. In Just Over the Hill, a jagged line of smoke replaces this streak, rising from a similar rolling hill in the distance. But here, the frame oppresses: the hilltop appears as if seen from a peephole within a thick, nearly-closed wooden surround. Just Over the Hill is dreamy to the point of mirage: the denial of access to this receding, somewhat unremarkable landscape seems arbitrary.
Harrison uses the sensory, and sometimes physical, escape that a window promises to instead evince claustrophobia in both Counting Sheep and Why’d I have to Go n’ Dream so Big? In the latter, he paints wooden dowels that resemble jail bars within the frame. In Counting Sheep, the small scale of the painting amplifies the tension: a crying, creased face presses against and fills the small opening as if seeking escape. The fraught interiority of these pieces lends friction to the moony mood, while the solitary nature of the works suggests that the body flickering throughout Harrison’s frames is our lone source of these visions. The tiny Beyond Me pictures this figure walking, maybe peeing, along a winding dirt road under the moonlight, free again. Harrison’s subject, when framed as a wanderer—moving through and making do with paucity—suggests a tentative kind of adventuring, both precarious and elusive of purpose.
Portrait of an artist in the penumbra of the moon, in hopes for a brighter future acts as the exhibition’s fulcrum. Here, Harrison reverses the vantage to reveal the figure at the window’s sill, canvas in hand, and clad in an oversized cowboy hat, a casually stylish bandana ringing his shirt collar. The figure’s expression, proud yet discomfiting, captures excitement bordering on derangement, with a toothy grin and slightly crossed eyes that reference racist caricature. Portrait of an artist lends the show’s counterbalancing moods—dreamy wandering tinged with claustrophobic threat—a space to blend.
Acting as the backdrop and site of Harrison’s yarn, the countryside toggles between the deep familiarity of the rural-bucolic and the threat and wonder of the frontier. The “familiarity” of the countryside is relative, of course, and far from a frontier, Harrison’s landscape looks to have been settled—if also deserted—long ago. The visual confines of Harrison’s works render a meager, even abandoned reality that remains subject to unspoken rules governing movement through and around its boundaries. Harrison pauses at contingent moments of freedom, captivity, and escape, cataloging the turbulence and peace of our wanderer’s long night.
Alexander Harrison: Midnight Everywhere runs April 24–May 29, 2021 at Various Small Fires (812 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, California 90038).