By Nature of Our Being
In her latest body of work, Glancing Blows, the artist Belinda Harrow achieves a level of accomplishment that indicates her capacity to evolve and to deliver on the promises of her earlier work. Within
it, she continues various themes and content from previous work with an exciting expansion of expression and a deepening of her previous considerations.
These images, which are on exhibition at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina from August 21 to September 27, extends the theme and content of Romantic Traffic, her 2005 MFA submission at the University of Canterbury while providing an opportunity for the artist to develop her skills and expressions as a painter. The successful result is a series of geometrically-oriented and colour conscious works that are simple, pleasant and straightforward and that achieve her declared goal to produce compelling images that can be immediately recognized and understand.
The Regina-based artist’s earnest experiments in artistic method thematically juxtaposes birds with the material expressions of human presence. Through this, she presents a wide variety of birds ranging from Purple Martens to Snow Geese and Meadowlarks to Burrowing Owls. Though the human structures are sometimes modified and highly interpreted, all the images of the birds remain fundamentally true to the specific aspects and details of the species being depicted.
Despite the focussed attention on the elements of art and the details of the fauna presented within these works, their total effect leans heavily toward the sublime, evoking a sense of beauty and wonderful that suggests they transcend mere documentary and mechanical motives.
The immediacy of understanding that these images provide and their tendency toward the sublime does not, however, suggest that there is nothing of import to consider conceptually. Whereas Harrow’s previous works made associations between animal and human behavior through metaphor and symbol, this new body of work provides an opportunity to more thoroughly consider the exact nature of the human relationship to the environment.
On one level, these images draw attention to the presence of animals within the urban world that our human intentions have made for us. In this way, they attempt to communicate that our interfaces with animals, in the context of our civilization, can become so common that we fail to consider their reality, significance, and wonder. The events of foxes and skunks eating dog food on our doorsteps or birds landing on telephone lines tracing from our houses to the poles around them can become so common to our everyday experience that they become virtually invisible to us. In this sense, these images seek to remind us that, despite our domestic and civilized environments, nature remains a persistent part of our human experience.
On another level, these images raise environmental questions regarding the impact of human civilization on the practices of animals. They depict birds interfacing within the human presence adaptively with electrical wires replacing branches as makeshift perches and lampposts replacing trees as vertical structures within their environment. In these images, birds and human objects stand in as metaphors: a smaller part representing a greater whole. The adaptive aspects of nature represented in the birds’ activities raise a broader question as to what the ultimate impact of this adaptation might be. The primary question being, of course, what impact will modern civilization have on nature as a whole.
Visually, this specific line of questioning is depicted within the paintings by fusing some of the animals with the human apparatus they are engaging with. Careful attention, for example, reveals that the lines depicting the legs of small birds are directly attached to wires and poles through the elimination of their ”feet.” Beyond this, the line of visual relationship between the birds and manmade objects is often flattened and giving another appearance of physical attachment or the feeling of an impending or potential collision between the birds and objects. This effective subtly within these paintings alludes to the question at hand.
Harrow’s effect of drawing our attention to various expressions of nature in our midst and of raising questions about the ultimate impact of the human collective presence on nature are significant points to ponder. However, these images also allude to a more foundational point.
The human relationship with nature has been troubled for some time. Nature is, after all, a threat to our very existence. Everything from storms to droughts and plagues to diseases threaten us all. The advent of human civilization is our way of buffering ourselves from the effects of nature’s crueler side. Our propensity to research, technological development and other refinements of our understanding has served us well in regard to preserving our well-being in an environment that threatens.
Beyond seeing nature in this adversarial way, it has also been our tendency to see it through a utilitarian lense. This exploitive approach to our environment has caused us to see trees as lumber, lakes as drinking water, and nearly everything else as a series of resources for our intentions. For better or worse, this very approach has provided us with the physical infrastructure that has composed the civilization that protects and nurtures us.
In the 1940s, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow presented the notion that human motivations journey through a hierarchy of needs, moving from base elements like safety and belonging toward higher elements like self-actualization and self-transcendence. His notion was that, once our most fundamental needs were met, we were freed from our brute anxieties about mere survival and were then able to go on to consider higher and more significant things about ourselves and our place in the world. I grab at this bit of thinking because it reveals what I consider to be the richest nuance within Glancing Blows.
In all her images, Harrow draws our human attention upward. She pulls our gaze away from the most brutish and material surroundings of our civilization and toward some of the most haunting, delicate, graceful and wonderful spectacles of nature – birds. This very poetic visual metaphor alludes to our need to ponder something of greater significance now that our civilization has provided more security, possessions and convenience than we could ever have hoped for. In this sense, her images allude to the fact that now is the time to reconsider ourselves, our place in nature, and nature itself.
From the vantage of our physical security, these paintings suggest, we can now set our eyes on higher notions and reconfigure our understanding of nature, seeing it as an object of beauty and grace rather than merely an object of fear and utility. Relatedly, these images suggest a search for higher notions of self-understanding that go beyond our brute abilities to survive or acquire. The very paintings that Harrow has made, testify to the human capacity to create images and admire them for their beauty. In doing so, they identify a fundamental aspect of human being that distinguishes us from nature and the other animals within it. Though birds do, indeed, create beautiful things like nests and songs, they do not do so with the same intentionality as humans. Uniquely, humans have to capacity to make and admire things solely because of their beauty. Art, Harrow reminds us, is the very manifestation of the highest human capacities. In this, she taunts us toward a self-understanding that is more gracefully and less vulgar.
Despite the deeper cognitive and conceptual allusions within these works, Harrow succeeds by presenting them poetically rather than didactically. Her absorbing and immediate images successfully and directly appeal to our innate hunger for meaningfully, delightful, and emotionally engaging moments that remind us of all the beauty that surrounds us. The immediacy of these images brings to us a direct moment of transcendence that reminds us that we are more than the things we make, accomplish or acquire. This, ultimately, is the success of the images Harrow has delivered in Glancing Blows. Through it, she makes her deepest point in the most direct way.