Melinda Harper

In abstract art, reality is subjective. Its language comprises non-illusionistic space combined with non-objective bands of colour, intersecting shapes and graphic lines. These features collide into one permanent form, allowing the viewer to experience an act of ‘pure’ viewing. This is evident in the work of Melbourne-based artist, Melinda Harper, one of Australia’s most significant contemporary abstract artists. Her investigation of colour and form stem from intense optical and psychological responses to lived experiences, embodying what Harper has described as “the act of looking, the obvious, the precise and the precious”.

Harper has developed an impressive oeuvre over the past three decades, producing works of stylish, rhythmic designs and clarity of colour. Curated by Sue Cramer, Colour Sensation: The Works of Melinda Harper at the Heide Museum of Modern Art showcases the diverse range of Harper’s practice; drawings, collages, experimental photographs, screen prints, painted objects and exquisite handmade embroideries. The retrospective is Harper’s first major solo exhibition and the first time in recent years that the gallery will present a solo exhibition of an artist whose body of work is entirely abstract.

Harper’s passion for art began at an early age, while visiting the then newly opened National Gallery of Australia in the early 1980s. “I decided to become an artist when I was in high school,” says Harper. “The National Gallery opened when I was in high school in Canberra and it was the first time I saw important art works in the flesh. The paintings of the American Abstract Expressionists, in particular, were great influences; Hans Hofmann, Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Rothko. The Hans Hofmann ‘Pre-Dawn’ was an intense visual experience and this began my investigation into abstraction.”
In this survey exhibition, the gallery highlights Harper’s influences, displaying works that demonstrate a continuation of the themes of these early 20th-century abstractionists and that of later generation modernists with her intimate embroideries and screen printed fabrics paying particular homage to modernist women artists. Harper credits the diverse and rich history of art as her main source of stimulation, “My work is a continuation of abstraction.” Like the abstractionists before her, she adds, “My practice is a response to the visual world.”

Harper began her career in Melbourne with her first exhibition at Pinacotheca in 1987 but this was a time not without its difficulties. “The challenge is to continue. I am an artist who makes a lot of work and there have been many periods where financial limitations have been both limiting and frustrating. I think most artists experience times in their career where it is difficult to balance living and making work,” says Harper. “As a young artist I had great peer support and there was a seriousness about my generation that, looking back, I appreciate.”

Soon after she became a leading member of the Store 5 artists’ group based in Melbourne (1989-1993). Her work practice progressed, evolving through the use of different background colours which introduced a new dimension and depth to her paintings. Works increased in scale and complexity. Among those included in the exhibition are pared-back Constructivist paintings in wood from the late 1980s and mid-1990s inspired by the decorative elements of Persian miniature paintings. Also included in the exhibition are recent large-scale canvases which comprise new geometric and colour variations on her characteristic themes.

Throughout her career, Harper has always maintained a strong and recognisable aesthetic. Harper says, “My painting is about colour and form, and their relationship. I am interested in what one colour does to another colour, the weight of a colour and the feeling of a colour. Colour is very complex; I am looking and responding to what I see and what interests me. In the last few years I have been looking at colour in the landscape. I do love a long drive and walking.”

Harper has always developed her practice through her own personal experiences, creating work based on her own individual modes of viewing. She continues, “There is also an element of the process being organic and changing.”

Harper is presently working with less colour and revisiting Hofmann’s pull and push theory. This theory concerns ‘the visual tension between forces and counter-forces’ through the interaction of colour on the canvas. Harper paints with no initial plan but instead allows her final composition to emerge from the process of applying paint. Her geometric forms range from calm to chaotic in a combo of stripes, squares, triangles and rectangles. These visual patterns help retain the viewer’s gaze, encouraging visual anticipation and encouraging the viewer to continue looking.

Patterns within patterns can be found, and with the use of colour her works seem almost like kaleidoscopes, creating a hypnotic ‘colour sensation’ through the feeling of movement balanced across the canvas, allowing the viewer to shift from one corner to the next with complete intrigue.
EXHIBITION
Colour Sensation: The Works of Melinda Harper
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne
Until 25 October 2015

Courtesy the artist and Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne