Alexander Harrison: Midnight Everywhere
April 24, 2021 - May 29, 2021
Various Small Fires is pleased to present Midnight Everywhere, Alexander Harrison’s (b. 1993, Greenville, South Carolina) West Coast debut and first solo exhibition at the gallery.
Rendered in painstaking detail on an intimate scale, Harrison’s work conjures the illusive intricacy of Juan Sanchez Cotán’s still lifes of hanging fruit on a window’s ledge and the moodiness of Northern Renaissance Vanitas paintings. Applying multiple layers of acrylic paint over panel which is further whittled down to create the illusion of stone or wood, Harrison often encloses his subjects in trompe l’oeil frames, presenting each panel as a physical and metaphorical opening into interconnected stories for viewers to peer through. Within each painting, Harrison uses allegorical symbols to create an overarching constellation of his own universe. These symbols are replicated and referenced throughout his exhibition: a shooting star appears through a green windowpane in Just by Chance and is mirrored as a sparkle in the eye of If I had one Wish; the figure in Portrait of the artist in the penumbra of the moon… is later reflected in the tiny silhouette in Beyond Me, now strolling down a winding path that might lead to another painting altogether. Here is there and then is now. Time and space are quietly blended to create a metanarrative of the Black cowboy, an autobiographical hero, a painter, an escapist consumed by wanderlust, and on top of it all, a dreamer who knowingly or unknowingly welcomes us into his sharply rendered dream.
Alexander Harrison grew up in a small American cul-de-sac in Marietta, a predominantly white town in South Carolina. In the artist’s words, “We called my neighborhood the Goldmine, and it was in the Goldmine where I was able to carve out a sense of freedom, love, and comfort among my family, sheltered from the disaffection and hostility that characterized the town at-large. As I got older though, I took every opportunity to leave […] passing through the risks and fears posed by Marietta.” Harrison’s paintings, by drawing attention to the distance between viewer and the view beyond the window’s frame, highlight a range of emotions: longing, desire, and freedom, compounded with isolation and transience.
A familial thread runs throughout Harrison’s practice. His fond memories of his grandfather, who always wore a cowboy hat, is reflected in the largest portrait of the exhibition. A nod to Kerry James Marshall’s painting A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, Harrisons’ cowboy wears an oversized, toothy smile that contends with racist caricatures. The painting also challenges depictions of masculinity and the white messiah in American cinema and literature, where white male protagonists rescue non-white male characters from their opaque struggles. Erased by the media’s historical representations of the South, which only recently resurfaced into popular culture, the Black cowboy is Harrison’s antithesis to such tropes, alongside other recurring motifs such as the moon, astrology, apples, and flowers.
The exhibition ends with Light of Mine, a single candlestick posed in a stone windowsill. Hanging alone in the second gallery, the painting’s setting is reminiscent of a bygone watchtower, its walls flickering by candlelight amid a blazing sunset and rising moon. Another memento mori in Harrisons’ work, the candle also alludes to the song from which it takes its title, “This Little Light of Mine,” the spiritual anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights movement immortalized in the form of a lone yet powerful flame that seems to illuminate an entire room. A moment of stillness perhaps intended to offer a place for silence and contemplation, it’s the last of many magnetic time portals that Harrison opens onto his parallel universe.