New Work by Kevin Harrison
On view through December
Max Jerome
45 John St

Kevin Harrison is a New York-born, mid-’30s firebrand with as many painting commissions as he can handle. Adept at photography, filmmaking, and graphic design, he’s also a one-man marketing army.

Harrison’s publicity stunts have included 2001’s The Entropy Show, with a rented crowd stirred up by a make-believe smear campaign threatening to overwhelm its Spoleto-timed art exhibition, and similar event-cum-exhibits. Of course, this is just the sort of narcissistic nonsense that real people expect from artists. But the results were impressive enough to attract the attention of a major marketing firm, which gave Harrison the rather redundant task of faking a riot in Chicago.

He’s been so busy being a golden boy (and a new father) that New Work is his first exhibition of originals in Charleston for a couple of years. Most of the pieces are oil and acrylic on canvas, with four hand-embellished giclee prints also present. One of these, “Silas and Grace,” shows both the old Cooper bridges with traffic in the foreground, passing in a speedline blur. The time-lapse effect betrays the artist’s photographic background, and he reuses it in some of his new works.

There are other photographer’s techniques in use, including a fish-eye lens distortion and some off-the-wall angles. Instead of a straight-on view of the French Quarter, we get a bird’s eye gander. A low angle gives the new Cooper Bridge a majestic sense of scale in “A New Beginning.”

Sickly yellows and greens contrast with a dark blue sky, an indication of the artist’s love of surprising contrasts. Warmer yellows appear in “Il Cortile,” another fish-eye take on King Street restaurant Il Cortile del Re, while cozy, glowing artificial light emanates from windows in “French Quarter,” piercing a gloom-streaked, cloudy sky. The passionate, dangerous colors suit Harrison’s forms — buildings are animated with bends and twists, giving the nightscapes a tremendous momentum. As a whole, this series presents the city as a groovy, fast-paced place looked at from a half-cut perspective, neon signs and street lights emitting a beer-goggle haze. The paintings capture the way most of us see our streets — in a rushed blur as we hurry to work, from the corner of an eye or a car window.

With an apparently unending stream of people who like what he does, Harrison’s main challenge is undoubtedly to keep his work fresh. The element that’s changed the most over the past year is his choice of colors. He’s still a self-admitted “dirty painter,” with a penchant for muddy colors rather than pastels or primaries. But his palette has lightened and his paintings are less gritty.

“They’re indicative of where I am now,” says the artist, who with his wife recently adopted a daughter. “I’m in a soft cuddly place. The skies aren’t so foreboding. They’re not always Halloween skies now. I’m trying to still make them interesting without them being witchy.”

In contrast to Harrison’s past publicity barrages, the opening of his New Work exhibition at Max Jerome was relatively subdued, partly due to the limited space. The reception spilled out onto the street and there was no room to project Harrison’s surrealist film, The Untuning of the Skies. Instead, a little portable TV played a motley collection of his previous film work — in his words, “a remix of all kinds of old stuff.” The tight space means that some of the paintings are easier to see than others but they’re not always complemented by the decor. A careful selection of fewer paintings would give this show more impact, which is, after all, Harrison’s forte.

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