Conversations with the body

Sam Harrison’s recent works bring together his interest in representing the naked and vulnerable human figure, and the more visceral forms of animal carcasses.
Sam Harrison's woodcut The Crucifixion

“It’s satisfying working on these things, to go through the whole process—killing, cutting up and skinning it, de-limbing and hanging it and then sculpting it. This process is something that most people don’t see and understand. But it’s the final word, when you actually experience the smells, the weight and the moving of the carcass.” 

Canterbury artist Sam Harrison is talking about the preparations he makes before starting work on his current series of sculptures in his temporary studio—a farm shed near Waimate, south of Timaru. His latest subjects—the carcasses of five wallabies, a cow and a horse.

He had been working there for a few weeks in February, but had returned to Christchurch briefly and was working in his sixth-floor studio in the old Government Life Insurance building overlooking Cathedral Square when the February 22 earthquake struck. He recalls, “I was working on a plaster sculpture with a naked model in the studio at the time. The work was flung off the plinth and smashed on the floor. We quickly got everything together and got out of the building. I’ve had to leave behind four full-sized figures I’d been working on, as well as a lot of drawings. There were also four or five heads I’d been sculpting, which rolled around on the floor. It’s lucky I wasn’t working on any clay figures at the time, as they would have since dried out, cracked and been ruined.”

Since the quake Harrison has returned to work in the Waimate shed and at the time of writing, had not been able to get into his studio inside Christchurch’s red zone, though his father and friends were able to retrieve several sculptures, a completed woodcut print and his folio of sketches when they were allowed brief access in early April. In spite of this disruption he will bring the new sculptures and a selection of woodcut prints north for his second solo exhibition at Auckland’s Fox Jensen Gallery in June 2011, and later in the year at Andrew Jensen’s recently opened gallery in Paddington, Sydney.

Photograph of Sam Harrison with his concrete sculpture Self Portrait, 2010
Sam Harrison with his Self Portrait, 2010. Pigment and wax on concrete. Edition of 1. All artworks by Sam Harrison

For someone so young (24-year-old Harrison graduated from the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s School of Art and Design five years ago) his career trajectory has been impressive. In addition to his first Auckland solo show in 2010 at Jensen Gallery, he has exhibited frequently in Christchurch (at Brooke Gifford Gallery and CoCA) and his work was included in Sleight of Hand, last year’s Port Nelson Suter Biennale. He has two works on permanent display at the TSB Wallace Arts Centre, including The Crucifixion, 2008, a massive three-metre square woodcut print, which hangs on the wall of The Pah Homestead’s main staircase.

But life-sized nude sculptures and woodcut prints—primarily figure studies or religious themes—are not the normal stock-in-trade for the average graduate artist these days. However, when talking to Harrison one soon appreciates he’s not your average graduate artist. He admits he struggled at school but in the fifth form he encountered an art teacher who tested his creative boundaries, and from then on he took as many art and design courses as he could.

At Christchurch Polytechnic he specialised in painting, and didn’t begin making woodcut prints until his final year. “I never liked doing woodcuts, just because of the way it was taught, but in my last year I picked the technique up—I’m not even sure how it happened—and then I stumbled on some large sheets of plywood, and it went from there.”

His first exhibitions after graduation included large landscapes, but he gradually found himself drawn to the challenge of creating lines and patterns of light and shade by gouging and incising striations on the plywood surface, incorporating the knots and imperfections into the elusive curves and shapes of the human form. But even now he’s hesitant to accept the label of printmaker, commenting, “I never really thought I’d be put in the category; it’s something that’s just happened – I don’t want to spend the rest of my life trying to shake it.”

Photograph of Sam Harrison's garage studio
Sam Harrison's garage studio

Reticent or not, Harrison’s virtuosity with this oft-maligned art form has stirred lively critical discourse, and writers have likened his work to that of Dürer and the German Expressionists. Critic John Hurrell writes, in his review of Harrison’s 2010 Jensen exhibition: “These woodcuts are particularly successful because their images are more than just about chiaroscuro and (mostly) female figures interacting with shadow and light. The knotty, splintery patterns of the gouged plywood have swirling vortices that cause ink densities to overlap and interfere with the clarity of the unclothed bodies and partly obliterate faces gazing directly at the viewer.”

Explaining his shift to sculpture, Harrison is equally ingenuous. “At polytech I’d made a few studies, mainly heads, and through that I discovered certain ways of working. Then later I found my own thing—working through what I’d been taught I developed my own techniques quite quickly.” His early sculptures, for which he often used friends as models, were moulded out of clay, then cast in concrete and coated with a dark wax finish. Typically these figure studies were of crouching, kneeling figures, limbs entwined, sharp-angled, tense and full of coiled energy. His more recent standing sculptures have required greater internal reinforcement and by using plaster he has been able to achieve greater flexibility and to create form and relief with greater spontaneity and drama.

Photographs of Sam Harrison's woodcut Vincent, plastercast sculpture Vincent, and concrete sculpture Fallen
Sam Harrison, Vincent, 2011, woodcut, edition of seven. Photo: Sam Harrison, courtesy of the artist and Fox Jensen; Vincent, 2010, wax on plaster cast, edition of one. Photo: Andrew Jensen, courtesy of the artist and Fox Jensen. Fallen, 2009, concrete, pigment and wax, 770 x 470 x 940mm. Collection of the Wallace Arts Trust

With these newer sculptural figures (in his 2010 Jensen exhibition and the earlier Brooke Gifford show Fallen III) he moved from the darker, waxed concrete surfaces and contorted poses to a freer, poised more natural style. Harrison avoids classical poses or perfect, muscular torsos. His subjects stand splay-footed and sunken-chested, lie heavily pregnant, or crawl painfully, limbs askew – in short he’s capturing real life in his work, depicting age, energy, joy and pain.

So, having successfully created the human form, albeit with all its foibles and imperfections brought to the surface, why has Harrison seemingly moved to the abattoir for his subject matter?

Rather simple, really. Sam Harrison loves hunting. When he’s not sculpting or creating his distinctive woodcut prints, he’s out in the Southern Alps deerstalking.

“I do a lot of hunting, and in spending my time doing this, I’ve come to see my art as a reflection of my life. I don’t want to be pretentious about my art; I want it to be more about me and what I find interesting.”

The wallabies were shot during a back-country hunting trip, and the cow and horse supplied by neighbouring farmers. In the short period he has before the carcass is either cut up or dumped, Harrison works quickly, skinning, gutting and dressing the animals, hanging them and then creating the plaster sculpture over several days.

Sam Harrison's plastercast sculpture, Crawling Man
Sam Harrison, Crawling Man, 2010, wax on plaster cast, 54 x 160 x 50 cm. Collection of the Wallace Arts Trust

And what he finds interesting about the work he’s doing at the moment (and those who are sensitive or vegetarian may want to turn the page quickly) is that it is freeing up his figure work. Apart from the prosaic reality that the carcass he’s recreating has to be cut up for dog-tucker within a couple of days, or the blowflies and whiffy odour mean that his studio is serious face-mask territory, for Harrison there’s an important artistic focus. “I’m not dealing with personality. These works are an idea as opposed to a natural thing, and I can make them how I want to. With the human figures I sculpt, it doesn’t come as easily, and even though I’m often distorting the reality, I find it hard to free myself creatively. I’m currently finding that the processes I’ve developed with sculpting my figure studies are feeding in naturally to these ‘carcass’ works, and in turn, when I return to sculpting figures, I’m certain I’ll be a lot more relaxed.”

There’s an unique presence inhabiting the works—and ethos—of Sam Harrison. There’s no guile or artifice—when talking to him you are impressed with his genuine love of what he’s creating. He enthuses over the shapes, form and texture of the internal organs of the animals he has killed and dressed, and how he may plan to sketch and sculpt these semi-abstract forms in the future. Although there’s a strong personal voice coming through in his art, it also evokes the work of others—in particular the images of Francis Bacon. And though Harrison’s work lacks the bleak, tormented and alienated undercurrents of Bacon’s paintings, it shares much common ground—Bacon’s fascination with the crucifixion and his obsession with carcasses and corpses. But while Bacon’s overwhelming atheistic pessimism seems borne out emphatically in his words, “Of course, we are meat. We are potential carcasses”, Harrison is still pondering the big question.

“I’m exploring life and death in these carcass works. I look back at a work I did several years ago—a red Christ crucifixion work—and feel it’s no different—it’s still a hanging carcass.” / Dan Chappell

Sam Harrison’s exhibition is at Fox Jensen Gallery, Auckland, from 7 June to 10 July and at Jensen Gallery, Sydney, from 13 October to 12 November.

Header image: Sam Harrison, The Crucifixion, 2009, woodcut print on three sheets of Fabriano paper, 300 x 280 cm. Collection of the Wallace Arts Trust

More from this issue

Ioana Gordon-Smith reports on the New Zealand pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.
Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

Read more

Auckland artist Rohan Wealleans opens a large show about wizards in Wellington, and collaborates with British artist Sarah Lucas in London.
Kate Newby's YES TOMORROW is infused with context and rich in collaboration, finds Lachlan Taylor.
Pioneer mystic–abstractionist Hilma af Klint arrives in the antipodes. Aaron Lister reports.
For almost 50 years the late Pat Hanly captured the light and colour of the Pacific in a vast body of work—paintings, prints, murals and glass works. Art News talks to his wife, photographer Gil Hanly, about the early days.
You can take Daniel Unverricht out of Hastings but you can’t take Hastings out of his art. Megan Dunn meets the painter known for stark, intimate street scenes in oils.
Suji Park’s art is a playful exploration of matter and form, which embodies contradictory states—interiority and exteriority, containment and dissolution, transparency and opacity. Virginia Were reports.
Tony de Lautour’s latest paintings continue his ongoing exploration of colonisation, control and ownership of land—only now they reflect on the post-quake landscape of Christchurch.
Fantasy and reality collide in an epic photobook project. Robert Leonard reports.