Friday, 20 February 2009

Claire Harvey

Cyclops 2005
Oil on Canvas 35 x 40 cm

Frieze Art Fair
21 October 2005

I have only seen this artists work twice, once at the Frieze Art Fair in London and then a small exhibition of her work in the members room at Tate Modern. There were three small paintings at Frieze on the Fons Walters stand (her gallery in Amsterdam). The work in Tate Modern was even smaller consisted of hundreds of delicate miniscule images that looked like ink or oil on “Scotch” tape.

I found her work interesting for the unusual supports that she uses, that make the paintings and drawings seem almost disposable. She has also worked on transparencies, glass slides, and Post-It notes. All featuring lone figures engaged in solitary pursuits.

I have picked a painting from the paintings on show at Frieze that is typical of her work. It shows a solitary man with a small rucksack looking into a plate glass window. The man holds his hand to the side of his head to shield his eyes from the glare and like the figures in most of her work, we cannot see the face, only the reflection of his body. This gesture keeps us guessing at the identity of the protagonist whilst at the same time the small size of the figure draws us into an intimate relationship with the image. It is a private moment that we are witness to, one we have all experienced.

Her work reminds me of the paintings of Luc Tuymans, not just because of the chalky paint, but also the ambiguity of the images and the way a grouping of a number of small works together strengthens and reinforces the isolation within each image.

The title references the one eyed giants of Greek Mythology, but the narrative possibilities remain very open. It could be about desire and longing for the unobtainable items that he cannot see within the shop display or it could just be about curiosity. In a moment he will turn away and walk on, and this transience of everyday actions is also a recurring feature in her work which together with the isolation creates an atmosphere of alienation. The emptiness of the scene speaks of the emotional disposition of a melancholic, who according to Walter Benjamin thinks of the desolate “emptied world so as to take pleasure in its sight”.[1]

[1] Benjamin, Walter The Origin of German Tragic Drama, NLB London 1977 Trans John Osbourne p318

©blackdog 2009


  1. A fascinating pic indeed - what can I add? You said all what might be important! As you know I'm interested in the theme "selfknowledge/reflected image"- I think who has been fixed on himself in such a way as this man, might ever remain one-eyed or blind like the Cyclops (e.g.Polyphem)- no wonder, he can't see even himself. Except this serious meaning supposedly, the title could have an ironic-funny subsence! The "emptiness of the scene", like a large snow- and icescape, painted in a cold blue, without any traces of life, is the most remarkable characteristicum of the painting- and some philosophical questions considering the possibilities or limits of our intellectual power or -more existentially expressed- the essential questions 'Who am I?' /'Which zones of reality can I recognize?' could be set in this painting, what - on the other side- may lead to an "emotional disposition of a melancholic". Remarkable too is the observation that the reflected mirror of the man looks a bit different- they could be two- different persons? The "emptiness" or -better?- the 'void' and the cold are dominating the scene, even if the man would look at his figure from a distance.
    One problem for me: the variety of meanings, connected with the term "melancholy" (In my mother language we had some, 5-6 synomyms for this term).

  2. Interesting point about the possible narcissism of the man, a classic association of the melancholic disposition. I too noticed the darker reflection, a quirk of the paiinting or a deliberate strategy???

    Yes we too have a number of meanings for melancholy - I m not dealing with the pathology of the "disease" but more with the "romantic" notion of the word. The self absorbed sadness resulting from a personal loss of some kind. Obviously some paintings touch on other aspects, but that is my main interpretation.

  3. The man seems to wear blinkers: literally (his hands look like blinkers) and in a fig. sense!