Close up with... Drew Harris
Rumours of his disappearance had been greatly exaggerated, but Drew Harris is very much alive, confirms Rachel Jena
Poor Drew Harris. He really did have to field some bizarre rumours about his hiatus from our art scene. ‘I kept hearing people saying, “You’re still in Malaysia? We thought you had gone back to Canada. We thought you had retired. We thought you were dead”,’ laughs Drew. He has, in fact, been in Penang all this while, having relocated there four years ago with his wife. But by the time you read this, he’ll probably be halfway through packing for the big move back to KL. That’s right, folks. The Canadian painter who first set foot in KL back in 1992 is coming back.
There were a couple of reasons for him leaving in the first place. Firstly, there was the recent marriage and there was also the urgent need to do something new. ‘I was doing a lot of shows, my name was known, there was a good collector base, and I was always producing good work. But there was that saturation point. You’re just continually doing almost the same paintings all the time, you’re not growing,’ he explains.
Penang was a break from that monotony. Drew dabbled in a few creative projects, ran an art space and design studio called AWAS with his wife, and generally got things out of his system. He’s looking forward to being reunited with KL though. For one, there’ll be more opportunities to pop into fellow artists’ studios (‘I just couldn’t do that in Penang’), and there’s also the shot of reentering the art scene – something he’s decided to announce with a ‘Hello, I’m back!’ exhibition at NN Gallery this month.
There’ll be over 20 large paintings on display, all falling under the artist’s new series called ‘Fragile Earth’ – essentially abstract landscapes inspired by NASA’s satellite imagery of earth. ‘They’re quite luscious when you see them,’ Drew says proudly. And, he’s adamant that you simply have to meet them in person. ‘Any picture is going to be relatively flat. To see them in a picture is like watching a movie on a wristwatch. It just doesn’t do it justice’.
In person, you’ll enjoy the depths and textures of each painting, and it’s also a good chance to see how Drew has progressed from his previous series, ‘Weather Works’. ‘These are far better than that series, I believe,’ says Drew. He explains how ‘Weather Works’ had seemed like the peak of his painterly maturity, but these new works – essentially a continuation – have managed to surpass that.
One of the artworks from The Fragile Series
But how did these works all start in the first place? Blame the weather. Drew was working on a large commission piece outdoors when he decided to have a short siesta, and – as Murphy’s Law would have it – it began to pour. But far from chucking the painting into the bin, Drew capitalised on the one-of-a-kind effects that were left on his canvas. ‘It actually painted itself and it was fantastic. So, instead of ignoring the weather and trying to force it, I let the weather work with the paintings while I just stay on the sideline’.
And that’s been the artist’s modus operandi since – hands off and letting the paint do what it wants to do. ‘That’s the theory or concept behind all my works. I don’t try to force a painting. I let the paint do what it wants to do, and then I go in and just put the makeup on and clean it up’.
In Malaysia, such talk is room for a bomoh visit and one heck of an exorcism, but as far as art goes, this indeterminacy has been a catalyst for some powerful imagery. Plus, conceptually, these works are minefields of commentary about our world today. Whilst Drew has recreated the earth’s meandering lines and bursts of colour in his paintings, they’ve been punctuated with sharp lines – divisions that the painter believes are these works’ greatest strengths. ‘We don’t have lines in our earth, but we divide our earth into so many components – religiously, economically, according to resources. Take an example like Canada and the US. We have a very distinct border, but there’s no line drawn across us. We don’t physically put a line on the ground and say, “OK, you can’t cross this”. It’s only hypothetical, and one country can dominate another country even though we’re sharing the same resources’.
‘I’m trying to have us look at our earth as one instead of all these divides,’ he adds, explaining that the media only compounds this issue with its reports on war and political turmoil. The magic, argues the artist, lies in looking from a distance. ‘From that high above, you don’t see any of the political activity, you don’t see any of the religious or military activity going on. We’re one earth, and we’re very fragile,’ he trails off.
Drew’s paintings are poignant in a time like ours when divisions remain one of our greatest failings, whether we’re considering global demarcations or the ones at home. There’s a lot to be learnt in the message the artist is offering, especially how important it is to take a step back and look at things from afar. We may be fragile now, but this understanding will only make us stronger. Oh, and by the way, Drew Harris the artist is anything but dead.
'The Fragile Earth' is showing at NN Gallery from May 12-31. See event listing for more info.