October 19, 2021

William Harsh Review: Paint, Draw Forever

Benicia’s painter, William Harsh, took to heart the lesson of his mentor Philip Guston that making a painting involves bringing something into two worlds: the one in which the canvases pile up and the studio space. costs money and the parallel world of image space, a realm of freedom where even the impossible can find its place.

With pride and a hint of reproach to the art world at large for not paying more attention to the artist, the Vessel Gallery in Oakland pays homage to Harsh (1953-2012) with a second investigative exhibition posthumous. It contains paintings on canvas and works on paper that attest to Harsh’s versatility and creative bustle.

The artistic example given by Guston (1913-1980) and his personal magnetism posed to each young painter he encountered the problem of knowing how to get out of the force field of his influence.

Harsh has never claimed otherwise. He openly surveyed the expanse of Guston’s long shadow, borrowing some of his symbols along the way: picture frames, easels, draperies, and other bulky studio items. Some of the first images on paper in the Vessel exhibition could almost be mistaken for Gustons.

Harsh also opened up to some of Guston’s avowed influences: Picasso, Max Beckmann, the first Giorgio de Chirico.

Looking at many of Harsh’s paintings causes discomfort. One feels there the struggle, the effort to improvise something by being fictitious and to try to make it credible as only the frenzy of sincere painting can do it.

And when it succeeds, as in a late-night compact piece such as the square foot “After Child’s Play” (2007) – ambiguous in scale, setting, source and reference – the unease did not dissipate, it took on a distinctive flavor from Harsh’s Own Sensibility, a sort of resigned but cheerful grotesque.

James Elkins, an art scholar who paints, recommends that in order to navigate a painter’s vision, we replay the gestures that the making of a work apparently required of him. Whether performed from the shoulder or the wrist, these movements can be quite distorted, and we feel some of this contortion even in Harsh’s most confident performances, such as “Mycenae” (2002), ” Colony ”(2009) and the one-design“ Action Chiffre ”(2010).

The effort that we feel registered in the brush and the drawing of Harsh does not exclude the elegance of the touch or the management of the colors. But he registers the difficulty of trying to meet the demands of two realms – the world from which we look and the one we look into, the space of the image that – convincingly – defies the laws of literal possibility. .

For Harsh, as for Guston, this sort of persuasive force, producing sensations that we receive bodily, and not just optically, was the real proof of the power of painting as a distorting mirror, able to highlight the strangeness of the reality towards which we hasten. become numb. Harsh looked for correlates to confusion – how can this to be? – that we risk living every time we reflect on the circumstances of our existence.

A very different combination of chance and methodical effort informs the work of Japanese artist Susumu Takashima at Chandler Fine Art.

Takashima can roll dice to determine the variety or order of colors a piece will involve, or its overall dimensions. The enigmatic numbers in his titles reflect this step. But his drawing process is pure performance.

The large piece on mulberry paper titled “Ia, (Drawing for brush, ink and paper) yang 2: 1: 3:” (2014) started with it by taking a brush full of pigment ink in the lower right corner of the page and tracing its perimeter freehand, the line thinning and fading as the brush dried. Then he painted a second stroke, following the outline of the first as closely as possible, then a third inside, and so on until covering the entire page.

Takashima’s only other decision was that the ink strokes as they accumulated would adopt the general pattern of a square spiral, a format that recurs in his work in different orientations and densities. It also tends to leave a small opening of unmarked paper near the center of a page.

Characteristically, in “Ia … yang 2: 1: 3”, Takashima’s hand tremors as he traces line after line to produce a field of marks suggest an elevated aerial view of mountainous terrain. The full extent of the abstraction of his works appears – one could even say credible – only at a very close view.

This exhibition includes new metal-tipped works on small canvases prepared with pigmented gesso. Several of them have a dark elegance, their gold or silver incisions vanish like the vapor of a breath in the cold air, but they lack the impact of the works with the brush on paper.

Kenneth Baker is the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: kennethbaker@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @kennethbakersf

Launch Pad: William Harsh’s studio practice: Paintings and works on paper. Until December 23. Vessel Gallery, 471 25th St., Oakland. (510) 893-8800. www.vessel-gallery.com.

Susumu Takashima: Drawings: Until December 30. Chandler Fine Art, 170 Minna St., SF (415) 546-1113. www.chandlersf.com.

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