The leap from painting abstract work to portraits is a peculiar one for an artist, but perhaps not when the sitter’s appearance is vastly unknowable and shrouded in paradox.

Jesus Christ is one of the most painted figures in history and yet very little is known about his physical appearance. It could be argued that any portrait of the man is abstract, a product of the artist’s aesthetic and possibly spiritual background.

Or perhaps, a product of the artist’s interest in camp.
Those three portraits [of Christ] are slightly camp -“ well not slightly, they are sort of driven by a camp aesthetic, Brent Harris said. There’s a painting in particular by Rosso Fiorentino in Boston called Dead Christ With Angels, and it’s the most swooning, beautiful figure of Christ surrounded by all these beautiful boys who are totally in love with him -¦ the level of camp involved is quite a strong emotional driver.

The shift to painting images of Christ and the Madonna was surprising for Harris, who found himself moved by the love and sorrow in an unfinished Michelangelo Pieta in Florence’s Museum of the Opera del Duomo.

I see the Christ story as being more about sadness and loss and love and all of that sort of stuff rather than him being flogged to a pulp -¦ Harris said. So Mel Gibson’s movie was a bit of a dead loss with me.

Harris’s interest is not religious, even if the spiritual bent of previous work has been misinterpreted as simply Christian. A 14-panel abstract work from 1989 entitled The Stations (also showing in this exhibition) was dismissed by some critics for being overtly religious.

It probably sounds shallow now but friends of mine at the time were dying of AIDS and that seemed to be the only narrative that was around for me to look at, from an artistic way, that tells that story. The journey from life toward death, he said.

The current batch of work is still unfashionably spiritual in content but is less likely to be seen as purely religious.

Someone in Melbourne on a radio program described them as -˜the bearded lady’. And that used to be a term used for Christ, Harris said. As images [of Christ] appeared it seemed to be like a feminine beauty, with this beard plastered on it to masculinise it -¦

Even those portraits, the beards are slightly scrotum-esque. They are also quite feminine, I think. But that’s part of me as well.

Despite all of this, Harris does not see himself as a gay artist and said he doesn’t make images that comment on being gay. His aesthetic journey is an emotional one: triggered by sparks as disparate as the toll of AIDS and an unfinished 16th century sculpture.

My real world is driven by my emotions, which are as real as anything. And hopefully the paintings end up being half-decent, he said.

The Face: Paintings By Brent Harris is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until 25 July. Visit www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au.

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