Adventures in Mysticism, exhibition catalogue, ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art, April 2008. (excerpted)

Just as surrealist artists and writers of the early-to-mid twentieth century sought to express their unconscious in order to access primordial and universal symbols, certain visual forms and juxtapositions used in contemporary art seem to connote the otherworldly. Imbued with rich references to the history of art and old master techniques, Dennis Harper’s egg-tempera paintings construct a subtle sense of mysticism in two ways: first, by deploying jarring juxtapositions of typically disparate phenomenon (for example, binaries such as East and West, the living and the dead, or the old and new), and second, by rendering the imaginary, dreamlike images of a child’s imagination.

Interested in traditional painting techniques, Dennis Harper began both Terra ombra (2003) and Black and White (2003) with a monochromatic under-painting in casein and then added gradual layers of crosshatched egg tempera. The subtle gloss of the finished painting, the rich colors and composition made up of a figure or group of figures in crisp architectural settings recalls the tradition of predella panels from Renaissance altar paintings. Yet, while predella painting featured narrative scenes based on Biblical passages, Harper’s paintings have the vague suggestion of an underlying story. Black and White is based on the co-existence of seemingly oppositional elements. Scattered throughout the brightly modern interior space are spectral, almost hallucinatory images from the past and present, often lifted from other, older works of art mingled with figures and elements that have autobiographical significance for the artist. In the foreground are two twin, sparring figures, their differences articulated by their costumes, since one is dressed in white and the other in black. Both are based on the same figure: Harper’s adolescent son. Harper notes that the overall garish palette and busy composition is meant to clash with the stark black-and-white karate costumes of the two boys, making them a focal point of the image. Their relationship underscores the play of oppositions evident throughout the image. In the background is another figure from the artist’s family—based on Harper’s late father—who appears to be recording events onto a piece of paper. Indeed, his presence is spectral and distant, with faded facial features, as if the product of memory rather than observation. Harper describes him as his possible doppelganger and mentions the red cross emblazoned on his shirt that makes reference to the emblem posthumously painted onto Velasquez’s self-portrait within Las Meninas (1656) that marked him as part of the Order of Santiago. Like Harper’s reference to Las Meninas, a specific scene from a Mughal miniature appears on the surface of a bright yellow wall. The circular movement of the composition is echoed by the painting’s overall layout. A scene of Christ’s empty tomb rendered dominantly in ghostly blue and gray, lifted from a painting by Renaissance artist Carpaccio, is visible through a pair of glass doors. Its otherworldly, alien quality plays off of the intense colors of the interior space and heightens the sense of disorientation ubiquitous throughout Black and White.

Though a far more quiet and personal scene Terra ombra features another figure based on one of Harper’s sons and is similarly filled with disconcerting elements and over-determined symbols. In this slightly older image, the figure is only loosely based on his son, and incorporates the artist himself as well as, according to Harper, the all-American, iconic Opie Taylor of the television series “Andy Griffith.” Comfortable in his bed, the boy reaches out to a dark lamp that sits on top of a dresser along with a dark, useless light bulb, burned out matches and a dark flashlight. His arm partially extends over the sole source of light, which is a plastic nightlight in the form of the Virgin Mary. Her glowing light has a double role: her light not only illuminates the boy’s bedroom but also imbues it with shadows that transform into monstrous apparitions. Similarly, nightmarish, strange faces appear in the patterns of wood grain of the bunk beds and dresser, and seemingly innocuous elements such as the boy’s bed sheets—which are decorated with a skull-and-cross-bone pattern—indicate a darker subtext, in this case, the child’s mortality. The close juxtaposition of the boy and the skulls parallels the play of light against dark, and finally seems to comment on the ineffectualness of the boy’s simple gesture.
(Rebecca Ray Brantley, curator)


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 2, 2007
"Ordinary transcends origin, purpose with sleight of hand"

It's reality with a twist in "Manipulating the Commonplace," as curator Marianne Lambert effectively serves up paintings, drawings and sculptures from nine Southern artists who reinterpret the ordinary.

Case in point in this Swan Coach House Gallery show: Dennis Harper's literal and metaphorical interiors wax quirky on the surface and psychologically charged beneath.

In "Gyromancer," a young girl gyrates with her Hula-Hoop while dogs wander in the foreground. Angled walls in the background host a dreamlike dance of animals, an old man emerging from a fenced pen, and a tiny winged torso, hovering in a threshold. This surreal composition of containment and detachment offers personal riddles with art historical echoes.

Silas Durant's accomplished oil, "Window in Time," captures an elderly woman focused on the cards she's dealt. Her face is deeply lined in slightly thickened brush strokes, while her strong, rounded fingers stand out against the flat floral pattern of the table covering. Behind her, "Wheel of Fortune" seems frozen on "spin again" and barren trees viewed from the window heighten the isolation of this intense portrayal.

On the lighter side, Philip Carpenter skillfully juxtaposes pop culture icons and classical painting. Mickey Mouse takes on the Renaissance in "Art in America," while "After Durer" stars Bugs Bunny pointing a know-it-all finger at Albrecht Durer's famous hare. Joanne Catalfo spices up the still life with her seemingly staid carrots, red peppers and scallions, splayed and dangled in decidedly suggestive manner. Sculptor Greely Myatt whips up a slice of All-American life with stacked scoops of ice cream in wood and plaster, along with a mouthwatering boxful of lifelike cupcakes à la pop artist Wayne Thiebaud.

Hooper Turner's beautifully executed "Pradada (Luggage)" seduces us with the ultimate in contemporary reality—advertising imagery. His lovely model leans back on a rumpled bed in an alluring pose that marries familiar tricks of fashion photography with wry reference to early 20th-century Dada, a movement known for its use of the "ready-made" object, as well as "anti-art" art.

Turner's soft-sell hard-sell painting thus epitomizes the exhibition's message of text and subtext—manipulation of the commonplace is subtle and powerful. Even when we recognize it, we nonetheless succumb.
(Debra Wolf)


Creative Loafing (Atlanta), August 15, 2007
"Manipulating the Commonplace: Let's get metaphysical. Swan Coach House takes a fresh look at realism"

Manipulating the Commonplace: Nine Southern Artists Reinterpret Realism is a show with two faces.

On one hand, it's a visually appealing, colorful, technically accomplished exhibition varied enough to keep viewers engaged.

For this reason, Manipulating the Commonplace is the perfect fit for the Swan Coach House Gallery, deep in ladies-who-lunch territory. Clever and idiosyncratic, the paintings and sculptures in this group show have a superficial charm you could enjoy on your way to chicken salad and sweet tea. "Wheel of Fortune!" one woman laughed as she passed by a particularly haunting painting by Silas Durant and recognized the cheese-ball game show playing on a television in the work. Another group of women chatted merrily as they moved through the gallery. One woman laughed to her friends at the plaster-and-wood ice-cream cone by Greely Myatt, "Dammit," that looked like it had fallen off the wall. There is no reason why art can't delight on this purely whimsical level, and Manipulating the Commonplace does.

The show focuses on artists who put a newfangled spin on realism, such as Joanna Catalfo's sorta-naughty still-life paintings of va-va-voom veggies, Myatt's more amusing faux-soap bar and his Wayne Thiebaud-style plaster cupcakes, entitled "Delights."

But those who dig something a little deeper will surely come away equally delighted at the exhibition's haunting, creepy, metaphysical dimensions. Complementing Scott Belville's and Durant's moody work are Dennis Harper's exquisitely skillful paintings that marry contemporary middle class dis-ease with the ecstatic realism of classical Renaissance and religious work in egg tempera and gold leaf.

Along with Philip Carpenter's wonderfully wise-ass drawings of pop-culture kiddie toys and cartoons juxtaposed with classical paintings, this quartet in particular shows how our banal surroundings can allow for both soul-destroying superficiality and spiritual striving. Like the elderly card-playing woman or the painter depicted in Durant's work, people are searching for some way of puncturing through the often lonely and dissatisfying membrane of ordinary life.

There is a desire to grasp at the eternal. Making art in Durant's "Convergence" or trusting in the Jesus night-light that illuminates a child's bedroom in Harper's "Terra Ombra" are two different ways of doing so. Often, Manipulating the Commonplace is the opposite of fun; it's instead deeply satisfying.
(Felicia Feaster)


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 18, 2003
“Dream weavers. In Marietta, a stellar look at visions of the night”

This may be the most appropriately named art show of the season. The exhibition is a “Dreamer's Companion” in every sense of the words; the paintings and collages depict scenes from dreams, they encourage our own dreams, and they are arranged to help explain the place of dreams in art in several ways.

Though Hilary Morrish's exhibition essay uses surrealism as an artistic context, the four artists on view here are more than just surreal. Kathy Yancey suggests that social rituals satisfy the desires of childhood fantasy and repeat the patterns found in classical myths. Scott Belville presents a kind of down-home dream world that combines Southern stereotypes with the old-master style of Northern Renaissance painting. Jill Biskin quotes the Italian Renaissance with bits of the present thrown in. Dennis Harper sticks closer to the present and comes closest to the purely dream images of traditional surrealist painting.

The combination works wonderfully. In a world closest to the one we ordinarily live in, Yancey's little girls gaze with wonder at the magic of grown-up heroines and heroes and go on to stage mythic dramas of their own, starting with the powder room at the prom and going through dinner parties and processes of interior decoration that begin to resemble acts of magic. Belville presents a darkly witty world also recognizable as today's South, one in which the classical statuary sitting broken at curbside probably came from a garden shop and only faintly suggests a world of lost gods.

Athens artist Jill Biskin, on the other hand, has no trouble combining today's table of chemical elements with the earth-air-water-fire combo of Renaissance magic. She takes us straight into a neo-Platonic world of scholars and conjurers kindling ritual fires in piazzas... but also one in which a familiar Moscow hotel can appear, transplanted to an imaginary midnight in Munich. The mysterious words that appear in the paintings are usually English written in the Russian alphabet, as in the signage on “Bernini's Elephant.”

Dennis Harper, also from Athens, presents our everyday world, but transformed exactly as in our dreams, as the slyly sexual Freudian symbols in some works would suggest. There are clever regional references: Hanging in an ordinary hallway, one of folk artist R.A. Miller's red-devil cutouts becomes obscurely portentous in “Demon Driver."

Biskin and Harper deserve their own show, with full-length monograph. Yancey and Belville have been more widely exhibited locally, but they too have never gotten the extended commentary they deserve.

The verdict: A remarkably varied and strong exhibition.
(Jerry Cullum)


Marquee, Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald, April 5–11, 2001
“Local Artist Garners Nationwide Attention”

Egg tempera painting is an ancient technique that massages the heart of pure color with layer upon layer of linear strokes. There is an arcane sensibility in mixing pigment with yolk and water.

Since some pigments can be toxic—heightening a very real sense of life and death in artistry—local artist Dennis Harper tends to use the safer colors, often gathering his own pigments from area clays. Though he also collects various pigments while traveling: “I've gotten into trouble at airports carrying bags of powder more than once,” he says. “I was searched three times in Manchester.”

Harper, an exhibition designer at the Georgia Museum of Art, has taught University of Georgia art classes in Cortona, Italy, absorbing another aged influence. “I've fallen in love with 14th and 15th-century Italian art,” he says, adding that there is an otherwordly, mystical influence in these works. “I'm trying to get a sense of that quietness.”

There is a sense of calm in his paintings, often heightening the presentation of some supernatural scene. And though his father, a commercial artist, once asked him when he would make some “real art,” Harper's work has gained widespread attention, illustrated by a recent series of exhibits.

Los Angeles' extremely hip La Luz de Jesus Gallery—usually known for its tattoo/surf/Tiki aesthetic in showing artists, Harper acknowledges—included his paintings in a recent juried show, exhibiting him alongside such renowned contemporary artists Mark Ryden, Shag, Eric White and Christian and Rob Clayton. Harper's work is also currently included in a survey of egg tempera painters presented at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Mass. Last February, Harper delivered a “High Noon” lecture at Atlanta's High Museum of Art, discussing “Robots Fighting in the Italian Landscape (and Other Dubious Memories).”

Harper's fondness for robots is one he shares with his children. With inspiration from his older son Andy, now 13, his vision of Italian landscapes included glimpses of robotic battles. In its entirety, the scenes take on epic proportions of some desperate, mechanical war. Available in book form, Robots Fighting in the Italian Landscape wittily captures earthy red- and sepia-toned scenes of robots casually tossing each other off of picturesque cliffs or tumbling in battle down cobble-stoned streets.

Harper's paintings are eerie childhood half-memories in larger-scale paintings and smaller-scale observations of everyday objects. His egg tempera studies of a Jesus nightlight or a plump hot dog or a bottle opener are intimate representations, hinting at the objects' histories without necessarily elevating their statures. His larger paintings are often of events that may have happened with varying degrees of certainty.

“They're not literal translations,” he says. “As I've carried these images with me, they sort of pare down into minimal form ... they're kind of dubious memories, I guess.” he says.

Fire Place, for example, is a memory. In it, Harper's father has lit a fireplace. Young Dennis, red hair cropped short, observes numbly as his father kneels into a stance of alarm, palms up, as a flaming bird tumbles from the chimney in a mystical ball of orange. It appears as though some omniscient director has manipulated the bodies into theatrical friezes, in a smooth-walled, sparsely decorated interior.

“That really happened,” Harper allows. “A pigeon came out with its wings on fire. I thought of the burning dove of peace, on fire in our room.”

Partially due to the egg tempera medium, Harper paints his characters in stilted, dramatic poses. Many layers of color provide stark light sources and seemingly false hues. The effect is “clear that it's not just an everyday occurrence” represented in Harper's paintings, he says. “It's something set outside of time.”
(Mary Jessica Hammes)


Flagpole Magazine, February 4, 1998
“Lost in Space”
Robots Fighting in the Italian Landscape—works on paper by Dennis Harper at Suil Studios


Arriving as an alien in a small town can be quite disconcerting. You clunk around trying to get the lay of the land. In your blind search for intelligent life you often fail to properly investigate some less conventional outlets of information and enlightenment. You run in with some locals, take some advice, discard the rest, then get back on your landspeeder and continue searching. The moral of this story: support the arts.

Dennis Harper's recent exhibition of ink drawings entitled “Robots Fighting in the Italian Landscape” has Suil Studios once again providing Athens with some of the most fascinating art in town. “Robots” consisted of nearly a dozen sepia ink drawings on blue- and green-toned paper hand-made by the artist. The gorgeous, offbeat drawings succinctly express the odd air of Italy as breathed by American lungs.

Like a War of the Worlds in Cortona, Harper has turned out a carefully rendered series of Hitchcockian frames wherein blocky 1950s robots ambush or grapple with one another in Italian hill-towns or in the surrounding countryside. Seeing these two or three robot scenarios within city walls or just outside of it casts an entirely different light on the weathered, crumbling structures of Tuscan villages. You begin to see the buildings more as victims of extra-terrestrial warfare, much as the '50s-looking robot-creatures themselves are bashed-up cans with claw-like arms, projectile limbs and rotating antennae.

Through a scattered, active use of crosshatching, stippling and overlapping looped lines, Harper re-creates the liquid-religion light of the Italian landscape. His relatively unmarked areas—the "vacation" spots as they are sometimes called—very confidently describe the ability of Tuscan light to wash out and dissolve objects in landscape. Harper makes great use of the long stone walls that surround the hill-towns of Tuscany—drawing the eye in with these intense diagonals helps convey the vertiginous compactness of towns like Cortona or Assisi.

The artist is clearly not afraid to delineate every last stone in an enormous alley wall if it is necessary to convey a particular sense of place. You know what a pain in the ass this is if you have ever tried to draw those cobbled walls yourself.

One countryside scene has a female-ish robot with a shapely figure on four wheels about to bash a more masculine looking robot against an enormous tree dominating the composition. I couldn't help but recall watching wasted UGA art students as they violated the quiet of Cortona at night, embroiled in late-night debauchery. What a brilliant metaphor—these robots playing stupid humans—for the demeanor of many Americans abroad.

Often, though, the ambiguity of the narrative propels these bizarre sequences. An arm reaching into view holding the head of another robot (a Medusa reference?) startles a buff cyclopean robot, and suggests a relationship not only to Orson Welles' pioneering sci-fi adventure, but also to Clash of the Titans and other of the early special-effected films of the 50s and '60s. With these works, Harper aggressively pushes a manner of representation often excluded from the art-with-a-capital-A canon into higher ground, and kicks some serious robot butt.
(Christopher Wyrick)


The Birmingham News, November 12, 1995
Dennis Harper, Things, Egg Tempera Paintings, Studio 2030

A few years back Dennis Harper exhibited some powerful works at Studio 2030, works that indicated a symbolic concern for environment.

Harper has returned to the Birmingham art scene with this intense show of egg tempera paintings in which he abjures photographic realism for one that is part nostalgia and part social comment.

Egg tempera painting requires that the artist has a sure knowledge of a desired result. The medium produces a hard, dry, tight surface suited to precise imagery.

Popular before the invention of oil pigments, egg tempera is the mixture of dry color pigment with egg yolk. Applied to a rigid gesso surface the moisture of the medium is absorbed upon contact. Tonal shading must be applied with small brush strokes. There is little room for correction short of scraping away pigment error and applying new color.

Harper's particular brand of social commentary is well served by the egg tempera medium. In these small paintings he captures a strong sensitivity to regional perceptions of the Deep South.

A translucent “Jesus Nightlight” emits a soft warm glow of opaque plastic against cheap paneling that is cognitively comforting. The icon is reduced to a convenience.

Harper paints a “Modern Lamp” that is deceptively naive when viewed up close. When seen from a distance, the composition develops a delicate and intensely illusionistic quality.

Depicting two whiskey shot glasses, Harper shows us “Lust and Envy,” one red and one green, with the devil's head producing auricular steam and the other calling for a double serving. In certain levels of society, shotglasses with messages or images are extremely popular.

These current works are certainly conditioned by Harper's chosen medium, but they also reflect a profound change in his purpose. In place of a youthful intensity the viewer now sees a wry and pensive quality. Where there was a kind of bombast we see an achingly somber sense of acceptance.

This is not a flashy show, but it is a show well worth seeing.
(James R. Nelson)


Bibliography

2010
As Above, So Below: Recent Work by Scherer & Ouporov, (author, general editor)
After You Left, They Took It Apart: Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes––Photographs by Chris Mottalini, (author, general editor)

2009
“Frank Ruzicka’s ‘Family of Eight,’” Georgia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 22. (author)
Dale Kennington: Subjective Mythologies, (author, general editor)
Auburn University Department of Art Studio Faculty Exhibition
, (author, general editor)

2008
The American Scene on Paper: Prints and Drawings from the Schoen Collection, (essayist)
A Sinner’s Progress: The Artist’s Books of David Sandlin, (author, general editor)

2007
New American Paintings (Book 70, Southern Edition), selected by Charlotta Kotik, Curator of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum; featured artist
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Ordinary transcends origin, purpose with sleight of hand,” review of exhibition: Manipulating the Commonplace, (Debra Wolf, September 2)
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, accessAtlanta, “Realism careens into the unreal,” review of exhibition: Manipulating the Commonplace, (Jerry Cullum, August 30)
Creative Loafing (Atlanta), “Let's Get Metaphysical,” review of exhibition: Manipulating the Commonplace, (Felicia Feaster, August 16)

2006
Weaving His Art on Golden Looms: Paintings and Drawings by Art Rosenbaum, (author, general editor)

2004
Flagpole Magazine, “Contemporary Athens Culture,” review of Lyndon House Art Center 29th Juried Exhibition, (Debbie Michaud, March 3)

2003
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Dream Weavers,” review of exhibition: Dreamer's Companion, (Jerry Cullum, April 18)
The Wall Street Journal, “Prussian Blue Allays Effects of Dirty Bombs; Hitch: No Stock,” (Julia Angwin, April 23)
Athens Banner-Herald, “A Masterpiece of History: UGA Fine Arts Building's Murals by Jean Charlot are Restored,” (Julie Phillips Jordan, August 29)
Flagpole Magazine, review of exhibition: Mercury Art Works: 2nd Anniversary Group Show, “Breath of Life,” (Debbie Michaud, October 29)

2002
Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, exhibition catalogue, Kendall Campus Art Gallery and Diane Savino, Miami-Dade Community College, Miami, FL, 2002
American Artist, “Tempera on Tour,” (Kathleen Baxter, May, Volume 66, Issue 718)
Athens Magazine, “Message in the Medium,” (Dianne Tangel-Cate, August)
Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald, Marquee, “Exploring the Male Experience,” (Mary Jessica Hammes, September 12)

2001
Art New England, review of exhibition: Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, (Joan McCarthy, June/July)
Art Papers, review of exhibition: Rise Again: Images of Life, Death and Resurrection in the Contemporary American South, (Lizzie Zucker Saltz, May/June)
Watercolor (an American Artist publication), “The Society Page,” preview of exhibition: Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, (Kathleen Baxter, Spring Issue, Volume 7, Issue 26)
Sunday Telegram (Worcester, MA), “Datebook,” review of exhibition: Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, “It's Not Your Mother's Egg Tempera,” (Frank E. Magiera, March 18)
Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald, Marquee, “Local Artist Garners Nationwide Attention,” (Mary Jessica Hammes, April 5)
Daily Hampshire Gazette, review of exhibition: Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, “Yolk Lore,” (Christina L. Barber, April 10)

2000
Flagpole Magazine, review, “Local Art Sparkles,” (Jennifer Schultz, May 3)
Flagpole Magazine, review, “The Art Show of All Mothers,” (Jennifer Schultz, May 31)
Athens Daily News/Banner-Herald, Marquee, review, “Room to Breathe,” (Melissa Link, June 1)

1999
Flagpole Magazine, review, “Made in Athens,” (Lizzie Zucker Saltz, March 3)

1998
Flagpole Magazine, “Top 10 Athens Visual Art of 1998,” (Lizzie Zucker Saltz, December 30)
Creative Loafing, review, “Jim Dandy to the Rescue: The Oxford American Does it Again,” (Gina Webb, July 4)
Flagpole Magazine, review of solo exhibition: Robots Fighting in the Italian Landscape, “Lost in Space,” (Christopher Wyrick, February 4)

1997
Georgia Magazine, “Uncovering Brooks Hall Murals Reveals 1940s Art,” (Laura Wexler, December)
Slam, review of exhibition: Dude, (Mary Jessica Hammes, November 7)

1995
The Birmingham News, review of solo exhibition: Things, (James R. Nelson, November 12)

1993
Flagpole Magazine, “The Scarecrows of Dennis Harper,” (Susan White, September 15)

1992
The Birmingham News, review of solo exhibition: Terra Rosa, (James R. Nelson, November 29)
The Birmingham News, review of solo exhibition: Recent Works, (James R. Nelson, July **)
Flagpole Magazine, review of exhibition: X: Ten Candidates for the MFA, (Yvonne Grzenkowicz, May 20)

1987
The Montgomery Advertiser/Alabama Journal, “Post-Alabama Contemporary Artists,” (Monique van Landingham, January 25)

1985
The New York Times, “East Village Art Tour,” (Leslie Bennetts, September 27)
The Birmingham News, review of exhibition: Anniversary Exhibition, (James R. Nelson, November 17)

1984
The Virginia-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, review of exhibition: East Village Excerpts, (November 18)

1983
The New York Times, review of exhibition: Maps, Flags and Presidential Portraits, (Grace Glueck, July 8)

1979
The Birmingham News, review of exhibition: Ruckus Group Exhibition, (James R. Nelson, April 29)