Kevin Harris’s art comes straight from the soul. On view at the Charles Sumner Post #25 GAR through February 28, his paintings on glass are forthright and unpretentious as he explores the difficult themes of slavery, injustice and spiritual struggle, issues that have shaped his life as an African American. But far from being depressing, his work celebrates the beauty and indomitable nature of the human spirit.
As news reports remind us every day, black men face greater challenges than most people in trying to live a comfortable, fulfilling life in this culture. Now in his fifties, Harris has experienced more than his share of these challenges, including wrestling with drug addiction for many years. He has been clean for the past three years, the same three years during which he has been working on this powerful series of works painted on glass.
Painting on glass is a tricky business. Because Harris paints on the back of the glass, the image must be reversed as if in a mirror, and he must plan carefully because what’s painted first will stand out against any subsequent brushstrokes. It’s an old art dating back to the Middle Ages, and while it was popular ineastern European folk art and icons during the 19th century, it’s not a common
medium in contemporary art, so Harris has had to develop his own techniques of working.
Brushing on layer upon layer of acrylic house paint, sometimes adding spray paint, and often painstakingly scraping paint away with a razor blade to open areas of the glass for a new color, he continually experiments with ways of getting the effects he’s looking for. Trained as a graphic artist, his style is clear and direct as he plays with the push-pull effects of brilliant color, variations of opacity and transparency, and eye-teasing disparities between high contrast black and white versus strongly modeled forms. But as bold as his work is, he also has a flair for nuance, especially when he is painting faces.
With just a few tiny details of shading, he conveys the open, lively sweetness of a young girl wearing a traditional African headdress in “My Queen.” In “Freedom,” his brushstrokes sketch a complex portrait of the world-weariness and loss of hope of a man with a noose around his neck.
While Harris uses an arsenal of styles to convey his messages, juxtaposing realistic images that have the urgency of newspaper photos, simple cartoons, richly modeled renderings, and fields of saturated color. While this kind of cross-fertilization of styles is often seen in contemporary art, what sets his work apart is that it is suffused with a raw passion that calls to mind the guileless, energetic fervor of untrained Outsider Artists.
Harris is painting for more than just pleasure. Whether he is making a painting about slavery and its continuing legacy of racial injustice or finding the beauty and dignity in the face of an individual, it’s not just an intellectual exercise. There is deep spiritual searching going on throughout his work.
In one of his most remarkable paintings, “Composition,” a cross appears to be hovering against a gritty, ruinous brick wall. It’s a simple, straightforward symbol of hope and redemption, but what makes it so powerful is the drama of its raw red and black surfaces. Harris worked for eight months meticulously painting and scraping the intricate scars and scorch marks on both cross and wall so that they evoke a visceral sense of history and time. This could be the brick wall of a Maryland plantation house, an inner city ghetto or a concentration camp, any place where suffering has tested, strengthened and awakened the human spirit.
Harris’s work scrutinizes many levels of slavery from the literal keeping of people in bondage to the psychological and spiritual bondage of repression, poverty, anger and temptation. It’s fascinating to observe how he constantly experiments with techniques for creating the images and effects he is seeking. Consciously welcoming mistakes and accidents (including the glass breaking partway through creating the work) much as the Abstract Expressionists did, he takes these mishaps as opportunities by adapting to them and learning from them, often creating a richer painting in the process.
The most unforgettable painting in the show is “Omar,” a spare black and white image of a black man’s face emerging from deep darkness. It’s made simply with dots of white on the glass and black painted behind, but the man’s steady, tired eyes and slightly parted lips convey an astonishing sensitivity, intelligence and depth of character. It’s as if you’re seeing into this man’s soul and finding radiance behind his suffering, patience and strength.
There’s a sense of discovery running through all of Harris’s works. In using art as a method of searching for understanding, even as a healing force, his open, experimental attitude to its possibilities parallels and supports his post-addiction choice to approach life’s challenges as opportunities for learning and growth.