"An artist painting with the aid of an overhead projector"
Adam Harrison, "An artist painting with the aid of an overhead projector," colour photograph, 2006.
ADAM HARRISON, Illuminations
Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver
June 11 to July 11, 2009
By Michael Harris
The photographer Adam Harrison was born in 1983, which places him, today, in his late-mid 20s. His recent show — a set of 13 photographs at Monte Clark in Vancouver — seems pointedly of his age, an age when the green egotism of youth is charged by the fact his talent is burgeoning.
Harrison has focused his brief and bright career on a self-reflective study of artists as creators (a large and memorable print in 2004 pictured nine students at their easels, packed around a still-life subject). His Illuminations series is especially invested in the relationship between the artist and that über-visionary, light itself. Some shots (the more popular ones, sales-wise) address the relationship literally. A beadmaker progresses with her minute craft by the blue glow of a blowtorch; a painter works in a room entirely dark save the ovoid glow cast by his overhead projector.
The notion of light as the artist’s essential aide is blown up to poetic proportions. His meditative scenarios are covered in a matte laminate to cancel reflections from external lighting. And while Harrison has stopped short of backlighting his images à la Jeff Wall, these shots do appear to exude some rich internal warmth.
Two large images of back rooms at the Vancouver Aquarium position light as the Maker, light as life-giver — industrial lamps are rigged over bunker-style containers of clownfish, anemone, and live coral reef, issuing their photosynthetic blessings on the contained ecosystems below. Harrison seems more interested in artificial light sources than sunlight. Nor is he drawn to “natural” abstractions of sunlight — moonlight, for example, or glimmers from shifting waves. This comes back to the artist as a 20-something explorer of his own vocation. By limiting himself to tight, particular studies of light as a manipulated tool, Harrison can speak to more elemental (and ungainly) experiences.
The shot that comes to mind each time I think of his exhibition is not the cleverest photograph on display, but it’s the purest. “Darkroom Lesson” has six students and a young teacher huddled around those shallow ponds of fluid every art student dips their fingers into. Bathed in dim sepia light themselves, they expect a creature to crawl from ectoplasmic goo. The shot feels formal, expectant, and reminds us that light can be both life-giver and destroyer — after all, it destroys developing film. The care of the students feels quaint, since digital photographers suffer no fear of light (and therefore don’t earn their muse’s respect).
Artists — like youths — find themselves in a kind of darkness and then discover pockets of available light. Think of poor Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, who blindfolds the man she loves to trick him into the truth of their bond. What Harrison has given us in this thoughtful exhibit is a picture of human reverence for light, a picture of the everyday miracle that is vision. “Look,” he says, “you’re looking.”