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Harry Bland

dark city

Harry Bland on Dark City

My practice primarily consists of small-scale paintings, and the occasional sculpture when resources and time permits. The paintings are reflections on Melancholy, desire, and loss. Melancholy is of great interest to me, in particular. It has a long history both within medicine (Melancholia being one of the four temperaments of pre-medicine) and has been the subject and object of many works of art (most notable for me is Durer’s Melencolia I (1514)). 


I began making smaller-scaled paintings about two years ago, during the summer of 2018. I am yet to understand why but summer is a particularly hard time of year for me to produce work in, I was feeling increasingly frustrated with making quite bad large paintings. I decided to make smaller paintings to exert a greater level of control over the painting; although the work isn’t an exercise in control or concerned with any kind of dominance over the media. A more precise and obsessive method of working is perhaps a truer reflection of myself. Working on a smaller scale allowed me to go from working on the wall and looking at the painting whilst I make them to looking down over them as they lay on a desk. With what I had thought about Angels, voyeurism, and the act of watching over, this looking down on the painting allowed me to connect a method of working with my thoughts directly.


A nonsensical but useful side effect for me of working at a desk is that to me “Desk Work” contains the sentimental association for me that anything done at a desk whilst seated is Work. This belief helps me escape the occasional pang of guilt I feel for indulging in an act as self-absorbent as making paintings.


The more recent of the paintings in the show (Come Down to Us, Penitent Engines) use a longer narrower format. I wanted to attempt to distance the paintings from the format associated with classic portraiture, as I am more interested in “feeling” than the exact description of a subject. Longer narrower painting to me is also synonymous with horizontal scroll painting, the emptiness and spaciousness of a lot of the scroll paintings was something I had hoped to emulate.


Around the time I began making the smaller-scaled paintings I started creating multiples of paintings, most often two paintings that were mirror images of one another (which I had always associated in my mind with twins or the act of splitting something in half). This is the first time I’ve shown both parts of a “twin” usually the less “good” one is put in the bin or given away. I started doing the multiple versions to put right the mistakes of the first painting or to redeem it somehow.


But as I continued with this ritual thinking about the Mirror became important to think about the development of the work, I found it easier to make the image do something when I saw it as a reflection of an Original, and as time went on the glass of the Mirror broke and shattered, images came apart and were transformed and abstracted by it. A few of these paintings (Penitent Engines & Come Down to Us) feature this kind of broken glass or mirror effect with facial features repeated across the painting and removed from the context of the face.


The title of the show is borrowed from a 90s sci-fi film of the same name, the protagonist finds himself without memory in a city constantly under the cover of nightfall. Upon the central city clock striking midnight the city is reset, including the memories of all its inhabitants. The film quickly falls way to a mixture of bizarre and ridiculous science fiction tropes, including precursors to tropes that would later be attributed to the Matrix trilogy (Black leather trench coats, mysterious men dressed all in black with little dialogue, thinly veiled allegory).


I had spent a large part of the past few years on trains late at night and walking through the city alone. Often finding myself on the outside looking in on social interactions as a kind of peculiar nocturnal voyeur to what I perceived to be the “Real World” and people's “Real Lives” and I had found myself somehow outside of this. Dark City speaks to my feeling of being alienated in the city or perhaps even by the city.


The City as an alienating and isolating force is explored by writer Olivia Laing in her book The Lonely City (2016) Laing describes the particular light of the Edward Hopper Nighthawks painting: “[There is] No colour in existence that so powerfully communicates urban alienation, the atomisation of human beings inside the edifices they created, as this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, of empty illuminated offices and neon signs” 

The paintings all take on this greenish hue because they all occupy the dark streets and alleyways of an artificially lit nocturnal city, the Dark City.


I had made work previously and continue to make work on the topic of what I term Angels specifically drawing influence from Wim Wender’s film Wings of Desire (1987) a film that follows the lives of two Angels as they watch over the populace of West Berlin. Whilst the angels are unable to physically interact with people they are capable of both reading the minds of others and influencing their thoughts.


Much like David Thewlis’ character Johnny in Naked (1993) the characters in the paintings are aimless wanderers, Johnny spends a large part of the film walking the streets of London. The character is conflicted; he seeks to escape constantly from other characters and unknown previous life. however, jumping at any opportunity to share his thoughts about the world with strangers.


The feelings I associate with both films are what I would like the new paintings to be a reflection on loneliness, isolation, and a desire to find a place of belonging.


Although Johnny and the Angels never belonged to begin, with they didn’t lose their place, their place never was.


In regards to loss, Freud stated that melancholy was a grieving of a loss that the mind could not comprehend. Unlike mourning, which whilst closely related is a logical and natural process to Freud. A love object is lost and a grieving process takes place. To Freud melancholy is pathological, that is to say, it’s a disease that could be treated, and overcome. I think of the work as melancholic in many ways as it reflects on grief and desire without an easily identifiable loss.

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