Zach Harris’ meditative paintings have a uniquely muted palette. Translating systems into abstraction, the illusionary capacity of his work both honours and obscures the art histories that it draws from.
The subdued browns and deep ochres of Harris’ work set him apart from the contemporary tendency towards bright, manufactured aesthetics. A resistance to the quickening art world where artistic production and artist are growing ever further apart, Harris’ meticulously hand-crafted work encourages slow and meditative contemplation. In his formative years Harris frequently visited temples, chapels and museums where he developed a practice of ‘durational looking’. Spending as long as he could with a work of art until it “imploded and revealed itself”, he also revisited works repeatedly to discover new elements with each sitting. This calming, introspective obsession is reflected in Harris’ own mode of making: painting for long hours every day, exploring the materiality of paint and wood through repetition. With tiny rhythmic brush strokes that form images within images, and layers of carved wood that build peculiar silhouettes surrounding the paintings, Harris plays with the notion of the frame: internal frames that fall in on themselves and outward edges that seek to burst out. Focusing infinitely inward and outward at once, Harris’ complex abstract forms create rhythmic vibrations and rippling patterns that demand deeper, sensorial concentration.
While much of Harris’ work resembles pure abstraction, he uses technical systems as a counterpoint to create them. By visualising the Fibonacci sequence, Mayan calendars and algorithms, Harris investigates notions of Kant’s infinite sublime: the intimidating and awe-inspiring potential of mathematics and nature. Philosopher Stone (in 2020), included in his solo show, Purple Cloud, at Perrotin in Paris in 2017, is a painting composed from the 3D mapping of a cave where human remains were found. Through the digital diagram, Harris identified geological striations that correlated to multiple eras in time. Interpreting this discovery, he added small internal frames either side of the cave’s horizontal layers that depict detailed images ascending, from apes with crossbows to the World Trade Centre in flames. A representation of an upward descent into our own dystopian present, the work uses a scientific tool to expose the surreal reality of evolution and its dizzying and terrifying potential.
The sheer density of reference in Harris’ paintings is rare among his contemporaries and casts a wide net of cultural inference: the gesture of the renaissance; the dampened hues of Post-War German painting; the intricate decoration of the arts and crafts movement; the shapes of Hilma Af Klint; the form of twentieth century abstraction; the repetition of Buddhist and Hindu mandalas; the painted frames of Islamic miniature painting; the carvings of Catholic altar pieces. Through this over-saturation, Harris’ work transcends any singular reference point. Instead, it opens up a shared cross-cultural history of art and religion with its own rich and unusual visual language. Offering a space for contemplation that exists inside the gallery rather than the temple, mosque or church, Harris’ work is a gentle yet persistent ode to art history, spirituality and the sublime.