When we look at portrait paintings, we tend to look first at the face to find a connection with the subject and glean some understanding of their life experience. Portraits were once a symbol of status and class. Nowadays, while there is still some status attached to such paintings they are more often portraiture which reflects the vision of the artist rather than just a record of the subject’s importance.
New Zealand artist Henrietta Harris paints portraits that make the viewer question the essence of what they are looking at. Her work ranges from the more traditional portraits to ones where the face is distorted by color and line or obscured by mist. These paintings suggest the world that is usually beyond the artist’s ken—the interior life of the subject, their flickering thoughts, and daydreams. In a way, they remind me of Francis Bacon who distorted his portraits to present “the brutality of fact”—a more authentic representation of the subject.
A graduate of the Auckland University of Technology, Henrietta’s most recent series of paintings Fix It present well-crafted portraits finished with a slather of pink or gold paint sprayed across the subject’s face. This small but telling act of vandalism inspires the questions: Who are we looking at? Is it important that we see their face? What can we understand from their position, their clothes, or even their hair? Why was this painting made? What do we learn from it?
There is also a bit fun going on here. The term “Fixed It” is reminiscent of some words used by Doña Cecilia Giménez, the woman who famously decided to fix Elias Garcia Martinez’s 19th-century fresco of Jesus Christ, Ecce Homo, by painting a new face onto the wall. The resulting portrait looked more like Fozzie Bear or a deranged Bob Ross than the “Son of God.” Henrietta’s splash of vandalism asks what is the value of portraiture?
I’ve been drawn back time and again to Harris’ paintings over the past few days as I try to answer some of these questions.