Review: Matthew Harris Goes for Baroque at Leon

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Last call for a smart-looking solo, Baroque Selfies: Matthew Harris, at Leon Gallery. Harris is a Denver sculptor who earned an MFA at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2011 and is now head of 3D Fine Arts at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. His work combines a Baroque sensibility with grotesque surrealism — like Berninis that have been passed through the hands of Francis Bacon.

For the works at Leon, Harris has modeled plaster or clay to create freakish parodies of portrait busts that he's set in front of paintings that complement the specific bust with which they’ve been paired. The paintings fall into two broad groups: those that resemble wallpaper and those that are sketchy if representational. The latter are experimental and admirable; it’s always great to see an artist expand his repertoire. But the wallpaper pieces interact with the busts much more successfully.

The show starts with a great pairing in the front window entry space that sets the tone. Called “Cardinal with New Vestment,” it includes one of the bust parodies, this one in ceramic with a silvery luster glaze with undertones of other colors bleeding through to the surface. As a feat of kiln skills alone, the bust is impressive; its contours are extremely lively, with lots of depressions and mounds. Though the overall form is somewhat indistinct, clearly we are looking at a man from the shoulders up.
The painting that is the other component of “Cardinal with New Vestment” hangs behind the bust. It's covered in a more or less regular pattern of what appear to be blobs of heavy impastoed paint, but are actually wads of papier mâché that have been affixed to the canvas and then painted over. The painting is covered with a freely drawn linear pattern in a bluish-gray that peeks out from the predominating rose and purple shades that were laid in after the linear pattern was drawn, even though functionally they serve as the ground for that pattern. The result really does look like wallpaper.

“Prince on Vacation” and “Soldier in Palace Garden” are similar in feel, and it’s obvious how the specific paintings link to their related busts.

That’s not the case with a couple of the other bust-and-painting combos, like “Duchess in the Rose Garden” and “Pagliacci on the Coast"; here the busts seem like separate pieces from the paintings. In fact, while looking at “Duchess in the Rose Garden,” I actually asked Leon co-director Eric Nord if Harris considered the bust and the painting a single piece; he told me they were.

The painting's complexity and representational references make it less of a background element, and instead it competes with the bust for attention. Even so, the bust of the duchess is sensational. Harris has expressively handled the plaster so that it’s been formed into a rough approximation of a woman with her head turned;  it’s been perfectly finished with a black acrylic paint on her shoulders and a deep, vibrant cobalt blue on her head.
Don't miss this show — which was just extended until October 1 — at Leon Gallery, 1112 East 17th Avenue. Leon is open from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 303-832-1599 or go to leongallery.com for additional information.

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