Ariadni Harper’s large, representational images at NAC are solid and reassuring. They carry a sense of strength, firmness and peace. She seems to have special interest in nourishment, as witness her pictures of lobsters, both cooked and uncooked, roots and fish ready for cooking. But she is also interested in living animals, whether goldfish darting about in a lily pond or a pug dog, and also children.
She is interested in depicting her images, which started out as photographs before being transferred to paint, from odd angles. One example of this is “Birthday Dinner” in which the entire canvas is filled with cooked lobsters jutting into each other with no sign of any background. Another is “Reflections” in which the artist has concentrated on reflections in the water from the bow of a boat, while showing very little of the rest of the boat at all.
A really disconcerting example of this approach is “My Squirrel” which shows the artist’s hands holding a very detailed depiction of a creature which doesn’t look very much like a squirrel at all but perhaps more like a magnification of a baby bird. “My Squirrel” may be her pet name for it. I was completely taken aback by the way she used representational detail in two completely different ways in the same picture so that the two things jolted you out of your expectation of a single coherent picture of recognizable reality. She seems to have set out to overwhelm us with a realism whose ultimate effect is quite unrealistic and yet convincing. She is not imitating Magritte at all and yet she makes me think of him. She makes us doubt the evidence of our own eyes rather than her technical ability. This must be the picture she is proudest of as she uses it to advertise her show.
In the midst of all her reassuring solidity she is very inventive and goes straight to the heart of what she is depicting. For instance, her painting of root vegetables carries the very essence of roots so that it is not simply the expression of their appearance. They might almost be the Platonic Ideas of root vegetables. Whatever she paints, it is the essence of that thing. She is also quite a colorist, as we see in the edible sherbet colours of “Cotton Candy Clouds”. She makes me want to absorb her paintings into myself as part of the structure of my own body.
These paintings are the result of fifteen years of work and represent a surprisingly coherent experience, given that they are stretched over such a lengthy time frame. Solid as her pictures are, the artist seems solidly settled within herself. Perhaps this explains why she has included architectural details along with her natural objects. Her natural objects have their own architecture, so these different things blend together quite seamlessly. Her eye organizes reality so that we can accept it without question.
I see I have tried to be too clever and subtle and have actually insulted this artist by what I intended as a compliment. It has been pointed out to me that what the artist was holding in her hands in the painting “My Squirrel” is not a baby bird at all – indeed it doesn’t even look like a baby bird – but a handful of black walnuts. She is calling herself a squirrel for collecting them. That just shows how badly a critic can go wrong in bringing depth psychology to bear on what is simply representational and the artist is making no highfaluting claims to be anything but representational. So please accept this apologetic postscript as a reminder that I am not infallible even if I am an academic. In fact that turns out to be a drawback.