Can't Talk Now
Michael Harrison & John Roy
23 November -
14 December 2019
Sumer is pleased to present its latest exhibition Can’t Talk Now, bringing together the work of painter Michael Harrison and ceramicist John Roy.
The exhibition title, proffered by Roy and accepted without complaint by Harrison, seems entirely appropriate for the terrain navigated by both artists within their respective practices. One would rightly assume that this title was gleaned from iPhone’s stock response, “Sorry, I can’t talk right now”, used in its ‘Call Refused: Reply with Text’ function. And whereas the original message is apologetic and suggests a temporary unavailability, Roy’s shortened title/statement, “Can’t talk now” alludes to something which is possibly more deep-rooted and psychologically troubling: a stuttering muteness or incapacitation, an inability or lack of desire to communicate or interact with others—it conveys a sense of quiet loneliness and melancholia. This simple and clever dialectical play is indicative of Roy’s glib self-deprecating wit.* Puns are a linguistic device that we often see in his work, and yet the concepts they link to are seldom, if ever, basic or superficial. They are both funny and affecting because they cut deep.
The works of both Harrison and Roy owe a debt to the surrealists, and in particular, the work of Réne Magritte. The quintessential Magritte image of an anonymous man in a bowler hat and overcoat set against a blue sky, whose face has been obfuscated by objects such as an apple or a dove (or instead replaced by a void or more blue sky), is an image which one recalls when viewing the works of both Harrison and Roy. In Harrison’s work the man has been disrobed, becoming more of an essential archetype (Adam), and he along with other figures (Eve)— together with other objects and animals of symbolic import—hover indeterminately against a similar such blue sky. In Roy’s work we also see nods to Magritte, most obviously in the use figures wearing bowler hats, but also, like Harrison, within his use of a recurrent cast of characters and objects: the boy/man, the banker, the clown, Uncle Sam, the turtle, rabbits, birds, rats, cockroaches, bricks and diamonds.
But whereas Magritte’s man is a passive neutral figure—the everyday working man, a civil servant, pen pusher—intended to speak to a proposed universal experience, it would seem that neither Harrison or Roy are interested in such a notion of claimed ubiquity. The images and objects of both artists’ work seems to be more concerned with depicting things that relate back to the individual. And whilst is it clear that both artists provide us with symbolically charged scenarios or propositions, which point to a psychological interrogation of one’s self; what is unclear is the relationship of both author and viewer, and those characters and objects depicted. Are these figures proxies for the individual to embody? Or are these characters strangers, alien and removed; where the artist/viewer takes the position of a third party, be it a voyeur, witness or judge? And what then too of these things which are also present, these Rorschach-like symmetrical cats, holes and voids, missing bricks and puzzle pieces, and circuit-like forms?
Both Harrison and Roy are well-respected mid-career artists, who have each exhibited extensively across New Zealand over the past three and two decades respectively, and in the case of Harrison, in Australia also. Both artists have works held in major public and private collections nationally. Exhibition highlights include Harrison’s survey show ‘Love in the Shadows’ at Artspace NZ, City Gallery Wellington and Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 2002-2003, and inclusion in The 14th Biennale of Sydney: On Reason and Emotion, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2004; and Roy’s ‘Glimmer’ a Tauranga Art Gallery exhibition which toured nationally from 2010-2012 and ‘Bending Hammers’ at Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, 2012, and his inclusion in ‘The Rooms’ The Elms/Tauranga Art Gallery, 2018.
* i.e. earlier this year John titled his solo exhibition at Avid, Wellington as ‘Asleep at the wheel’.
Michael Harrison appears courtesy of Robert Heald Gallery and Ivan Anthony Gallery.