"David Harley Fill", Catalogue Essay by Stephen Haley


Melbourne - Victorian College of the Arts, Gallery, June 2004.




“My son will grow up with a monitor as a child of Kant grew up with a pond.”[1]


From David Harley’s own post-Kantian pool flows ecstatic visions of delirious hyper-abundance. In his huge digital prints, frantic migraine pulses of colour ping across soft Gaussian clouds to fill the visual field. Some of the most interesting visual art in recent years has emerged from painters getting their hands on computer equipment to produce what might be called ‘digital paintings’. Harley is also a painter but he has also embraced the expanding possibilities of digital printing to produce some startling images. Fill is his most recent work, exhibited at the VCA Gallery, Melbourne in June 2004.


Created from multiple panels of pigmented ink printed onto low gloss paper, Fill was a digital skin that flowed along the full height of two walls. Bent at right angles, the single work crossed a corner space and folded outwards like two wings of a swing-back mirror to envelope the viewer in its massive scale. No simple looking glass, the two ‘halves’ featured uncertain, incomplete symmetries - permutations on forms rather than reflections. Although the artist considered and incorporated the found architecture of the gallery space, the work was not an installation as such. Dealing neither with volumetric space, nor the illusionist space of representation, Fill instead managed to pictorialize the space itself. The effect was an uncanny disorientation that placed the viewer within the space of the frame - as if they had walked into an abstract painting. The work became not a discrete, mindful picture on the wall, but spatialized imagery that washed over the viewer like the phosphorous screen-glow from whence it originated. In this immersive field of vision, with its enfolding, illusionistic depth, the work recalled a Rococo grotto with its planar, decorated surfaces and its invocation of deep subterranean space – an association consciously invoked by the artist.


Strangely, Fill recalls Jean-Antoine Watteau’s 1717 picture The Embarkation to Cytherea.  This emblematic Rococo image, with its interest in ornamentation, its light, delicate and highly artificial depictions that manage to convey a sense of gaiety with something more melancholic, might be a key to Harley’s work. Although it seems a world away from the computer generated marks of Harley’s Fill, there are strong parallels. The strident artificiality evident in the ‘fete galante’ is just one aspect of accord but there are also close echoes in the vaporous, melting light of the two. In both works as well, the ephemeral, transparent atmospherics in pale colours are foregrounded by strongly hued, solid figures often rendered in short, broken swirls, dots and dashes. In the backgrounds of the Watteau there are small passages that, if enlarged, might strongly resemble Harley’s mark making sensibility. Beyond these formal resemblances, Watteau depicts the beginnings of a journey to a fantastic land – Cytherea, birthplace of Venus - a land of sensuous pleasure and visual delight. In keeping with the 18th century’s increasing interest in, and divorce from, the world of nature, the work rhapsodises Nature as a space of liberty. During the Rococo period the West began to imagine the natural world as noble and free from societal constraint while self-consciously acknowledging that this construct was largely an illusion arising from distance – an atmospheric haze blurring the facts. Fact or not, the notion of an alternative, ecstatic space freed from the bonds of everyday, dreary reason was tied to the world of nature. This idea still lingers today although an alternative space with similar properties has recently emerged. In the present age, Cytherea has become cyberspace – at least as it is often eulogized - a new world of untrammelled experience offering sensuous delights and giddying freedoms. True, like romanticised nature, cyberspace remains a slightly standoffish world – a space we may visit, travel to – but not inhabit. It remains mediated - always beckoning, always distant, a space of the imagination. For Watteau’s travellers - always suspended on its outskirts, poised to travel there but never boarding the boat, never leaving the shore - this imaginative space remains ever remote. In Harley’s work though, we seem to have arrived and stand, immersed.


It is through visits to this world that some of the most interesting and visually intense art of the moment is being created. In Harley’s work, the artist does not fall to rapturous proselytising about the potential wonders of cyberspace, instead he creates from its possibilities, images of wonder. If Watteau begins the journey, with Harley we have arrived - but to a new nature - cyberspace.


Not merely playful lyricism invoking a longed for world of enchantment this work though. Here, in this digital forest (or among its subterranean roots) there is an intensity of vision that metamorphoses into near hallucination - akin to a drugged dreaming, or the intraocular flashes and lights that are the effect of pressing on closed eyeballs. The visual space here alludes not merely to the external world but to interiority, a space of contemplation and speculation akin to the lyric abstraction of mid century American abstract expressionism. This too, is a tradition Harley acknowledges as influential, particularly the work of Mark Rothko and Hans Hofmann. The abstract forms and flowing counterpoints also recall the ‘musical’ compositions of Kandinsky that sought to evoke emotive responses and mental reveries in a manner sympathetic to the operation of music. The dizzying array of marks – slightly transparent, abruptly sharp, slowly pixilating - are a lexicon of nuance like notes in a score, exceeding their own materiality and the apparent limits proffered by the program’s palette. Rendered at this gigantic scale they vary from the miniscule moment to the wall-high dash, and the work becomes a score that must be followed not with a rhythmic beat of the finger or nod of the head, but with the viewer’s entire body.


Like paintings, these are excruciatingly slow works to produce, full of the crucial but usual decisions regarding colour, mark, layering, balance and form. Like paintings too, these decisions are careful, calculated, intuitive and whimsical. Similarly, they are exploratory, often revealing themselves through the process of their production and there are many changes, erasures and scrubbings between the initial idea and the final output. The works are drawn with a mouse and a Wacom tablet, predominantly in Photoshop, with occasional embarkations to other programs. These images are tiled to fit the space before being printed onto specialized low gloss paper. Digital work often stumbles in the leap from screen to sheet, from transmissive colour to reflective colour. CYMK prints are often dull ghosts lacking the luminescence of the RGB phosphors that they seek to emulate. Harley’s work springs across this divide with vivid colour and strong luminosity.


For some time the possibilities of digital imaging have been anticipated. Artists have begun to use the technology but have often done so with hesitancy, or the unfortunate fluency of the graphic arts industry. Few artists have been able to grasp the technology and seriously play with its visuality - to see what possibilities lie beyond those of the routinely pictorial or self consciously demonstrative. David Harley’s work however has moved into this new space of possibility that treats the digital, not as some strange, alien space, but as a familiar land suffused with the welcoming glow of golden Cytherea.


Stephen Haley 2004


[1] Bill Beckley preface to “Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime” Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, 1999 Allworth Press,p.xii