Softly spoken and with a sense of thoughtful consideration permeating through her speech as we talk at her south London studio, Marie Harnett, who is dressed in all black, is both everything I expected her to be and not.
I first came across her work at her second solo exhibition, Still, at Alan Cristea Gallery in London, in early 2018, and was immediately taken aback by her large-scale drawing, Windows (2017). It is a very dark work, commanding and visually robust but at the same time unassuming and thought provoking. It marked something of a change in her practice which had been, up until then, made up of predominantly small-scale drawings.
The work is over a meter long and is mostly a densely pencilled expanse. On each side of the composition are a set of windows, each made up of four panes, two on top, two on the bottom. Both sets of the top windows are covered by blinds, apart from a thin sliver of light seen through the left set. Through the bottom sets, you can glimpse a party in full swing. On the left, a woman is seen holding a cigarette and bowing her head, the features of her face obscured by the window sash. Behind her is a row of cupboards and a set of draws on which a bottle can be seen. Just beyond this, a man smiles and stares at someone that can’t be seen. On the right, an older man wearing glasses and a sweater vest with a shirt and tie underneath, stands with his hands in his pockets, perhaps glumly, locked in conversation with a woman whose contoured silhouette can just be seen.
You are unwittingly placed in the position of voyeur, lurking outside – it’s an exciting position to be in as speculations rises; why are you outside, whose party is it, what is going on that can’t be seen? These are all questions that race quickly through your mind, echoing a sudden increase in your heart rate.
When discussing the work, I tell her that I think that atmosphere of the party is just about to or is changing, and that something bad, like an argument breaking out among guests, is about to happen. Harnett, offers a contrary interpretation, she sees it as a fun, celebratory occasion where the people are happy and hopeful.
The answer can be found in the film Carol but is not relevant. At this stage, the scene has been firmly extracted from it’s cinematic origins and, having had its nuances and emotive tone laboriously worked over by Harnett transferring it to the medium of drawing, has become solely hers; ripe for reinterpretation. “When I draw something, it separates from the film - becomes its own. So, the storyline I construct, or the way I feel about a still, won’t change, but my impression of a film can. So, I’ll be like “Oh, that’s what the scene was about” but my drawing still means what I intended it to.” She says.
Harnett begins her drawings by saving stills from film trailers that have been turned into greyscale, collecting anywhere between, 300 – 600 per trailer. She is stringent on not having watched the film before so that the narrative doesn’t colour her instinct of the emotions she feels from a selected still. “I tend to trust my reaction to an image - if it makes me feel a certain way, melancholic, joyful, intrigued, then I’ll save it.” From this, her practice takes on the plausibility of having a conceptual rigour akin to Richard Prince’s Living Rooms series. But to approach her works with this as a focal point would be doing them an injustice, as it is firmly rooted in the act of and aesthetic qualities produced from drawing.
“I think pencil has a quiet, yet luminous quality that allows the viewer to remove the drawing from the real world. We see in colour and so when we see something in black and white, it separates itself from real-life. I frequently love the colours used in the films I work from, but I find I can somehow read the emotion and story better when it’s in greyscale.” She continues.
When I visit, her studio is clean and ordered with no unnecessary clutter. The walls are mostly white and unmarked apart for a selection of reference images and in the middle, with all the presence of an altar in a church, is a recliner and blanket. “I can work almost anywhere that has a comfy chair. It’s not essential that I have a studio space - once I’m focused on the little drawing, everything else falls away.” she says. While she works she listens to audiobooks which is, she says, very important as it “signals to my brain that it’s about to start drawing.”
You can sense a great pleasure is had in creating these works, that Harnett gets lost in her own fantasy, which is aided by the sound of a story being told. Similarly, you do, too, when looking at them. In Heleno (2013), they are often portraying moments of tenderness and shared intimacy, for example, you see a woman riding pillion with a man on motorbike, kissing his cheek as he turns to make sure she’s okay or a woman amorously looking into her lover’s eyes as he lies on the ground, her mouth ajar just enough so that you can’t help but take a secretive gasp of elation yourself.
However, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2017), the use of voyeuristic framing devices is more charged and alludes to a bigger picture taking place beyond the limits of the drawings. Their small scale, each one is about 4 cm tall and 10 cm wide, demands that you come in closely to examine their silvery, nuanced surfaces. In one, a man is taking a photograph of a subject not seen and in another a woman in a hat moves her sunglasses down to scan beyond the would-be screen. It’s Harnett’s attention to the most minute details that make the works so captivating. In another, the man seen previously taking the photograph now standing in front of a car with his arms folded and the camera on its roof, waiting and for somebody to arrive from the right. The figures in the background and the warped skyline partially visible in the reflection on the rear window feel so realistic, that reflective surfaces give the impression that they could be vintage black and white photographs from a by-gone era.
Since joining Alan Cristea Gallery in 2008, their youngest artist at the time, Harnett’s focus on drawing has been something of an anomaly for a gallery which is renowned for its focus on printmaking for such luminaries as Tom Wesslemann, Richard Hamilton, Antony Gormley and Julian Opie. But this relationship has opened new avenues for her practice to explore, of which her linocut triptych, Piano (2017), is a prime example.
In the central image, a man regally leans back on a piano stool, his back against the piano. His is looking up towards the ceiling but his face is obscured by shadow. He’s lost in the heat of the moment. Beyond him, a floor lamp casts a wash of light down illuminating the outline of face, upper body and the creases of his jumper. The two flanking images reveal that the man is being seen through a doorway, an uncaught violation of his privacy, however they are more muted and harder to decipher, verging on abstraction. The linocut replaces the permanence that the pencil drawings have, built from their relationship to their cinematic counterpart, with a matte inkiness, making the work softer and more delicate in its delivery which is removed further by the waves of the linocut, which swirl through the composition giving it a pulsing, ethereal quality that questions its authenticity against its origins.
As Harnett’s continues practice expands, and she finds new ways in which to control what we see and how this can be orchestrated in new ways, through scale and choice of base image, she is determined not to rest on her laurels and has recently begun experimenting with paint, “I think I will always draw, and I’m really enjoying seeing how it’s evolving, but I’ve also been painting a bit and I’ve completely fallen in love with it,” which, it seems, has already created its own set of conditions, “I couldn’t sit, nor listen to an audiobook.” She says. “I have to stand and listen to music. Very mercurial of me!”