Visual art news, views, reviews & calendars in Dallas, Texas, USA
Dennis Harper, Then
Artist In Trajectory
Story by J R Compton
Feedback from Dennis Harper on the bottom of this page
When former Dallas artist and old friend Dennis Harper E-mailed saying he was graduating with a BFA in art from UT Austin soon and was looking for a grad school, he asked me to take a look at his work and tell him what I thought.
I thought much of his work was a logical extension from his comix work when I knew him in the early 70s in our underground newspaper days, but I didn't know what to think about his sculpture, the best of which startled and amazed me. Still does, as you will see.
I knew I wanted to write about Dennis’ work, so I downloaded every image I could find in his UT directory, I've sneaked looks at it from time to time, and I've developed a feeling for the work — especially how it relates to the Dennis Harper I once knew and admired.
Lately, I downloaded some new painting images that I have not fully absorbed yet, because they are so far from the work I knew and understood. But nothing I've yet seen has detracted from my admiration, although I do wonder what he did and was involved in those missing 30 years.
I assume he did some advertising work and dimensional illustration, and probably some personal work that would knock my socks off. But I have evidence only from his early years in the 1970s gapping into his UT portfolio. So that's what I will discuss here.
When I knew Dennis in the 70s, he was Dallas NOTES and later Hooka’s (The Humanitarian Order of Kosmic Awareness, underground newspapers I published) best graphic artist and the co-creator, with the late writer Jay Gaulding, of The Continuing Story of God, a comic strip we published twice every month in Dallas NOTES and later Hooka. God, of course, was a black dude from Pleasant Grove who did some pretty amazing things, often subtly, sometimes obscurely, but it was always entertaining and thought provoking.
In exchange for his God comics and commercial and editorial illustrations, we gave him a half page or more of ad space every issue for his head shop, and those ads quickly became one of the paper's most popular features.
Back then Dennis was into cars and drove a sporty little roadster that often appeared in his ads and illustrations. He was always an invited and welcomed guest at the papers’ production nights, although we really didn't know much about him or his personal life or what he thought or did when he wasn't at the paper.
We could give him vague directions about what story or ad we wanted illustrated, then step back and watch the ideas almost instantaneously sparkle his eyes, charge down his arm and out his Rapidograph pen onto whatever paper he could find. He was quick, smooth and often made visual suggestions and extrapolations that seemed, in retrospect, perfect.
Shy then and apparently shy still, Dennis was never egotistical or standoffish. Camouflaged behind his straggly blonde beard and sometimes hidden in the shadow under his ever-present straw cowboy hat, his smile was earnest and infectious. Dennis was smart and talented and fun to be around.
You may have seen the hippie-looking Uncle Sam reading a book that Half Price Books still uses as their ersatz logo 30 years later. Dennis whipped that out one night to fill space in an ad. He never billed them, and they never paid him for it. He didn't think it was a big deal.
The last time I saw or talked with Dennis I got him to do illustrations for my 1974 publication of armadilla magazine — “Everything you'd ever want to know about armadillos ... There's a song, a dance, a game. There's even recipes and scientific research ...” for which he invented a center-spread game that involved a 1958 Buick racing the mother of and four armadillos over an inwardly winding, semi parallel pair of tracks textured with dillo tracks and rubber tire swerves.
According to the rules of On The Road, The Game of Texas, players throw dice to advance on the gameboard, and “Whenever an armadillo and a car are on the same space, the armadillo gets squashed.” It featured such diversionary game stops as ”hit by VW — miss one turn” and “stop to eat worms, miss one turn.”
Dennis wasn't home the next time I tried to visit him, but I parked my VW in his back yard and spent the night in it. I know he helped produce the Oat Willie's Department Store (a distributor based in Austin) catalog during the mid 70s. And he had another head shop in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Then I lost track, often wondering aloud with other former NOTES and Hooka staffers what had happed to the shy genius.
You can can see how some of his more humorous UT Austin pieces, like this hapless flying carpeteer and the dangling piano below, both made of paper, fit along the winding arc of Dennis’ 70s work I'd come to love. The vivid colors, broad humor and gentle charm of these light-weight (literally, not figuratively) work, all seem a logical extension of his gently humorous comics and illustrations.
Knowing his long-time fascination with fast rides and their inner workings, it's not much of a surprise that he still paints and now constructs the following sorts of image objects.
Neither is it surprising that the last piece in this series is political. We have here an artist who's been into things that go fast in the night nearly all his life, and who has gently aligned with underground newspapers and alternate publications, as both illustrator and graphic artist, viewer and participant.
Note the progression of subtlety and composition in this arbitrarily arranged series of vehicular velocity.
The sardonic humor in this painting melds fine art and illustration while its message is as vivid as the artist's color sensibility. It's knock-out quality, either as fine art or illustration, marvelous as both.
Now, a couple brief sidesteps from our onward flow of Harper history. One, a step circling back through art history, maybe just to see if he could pull it off, and of course he did, and the other a multiple of an an icon more recent, both slight curtsies in different historical directions.
Dennis told me or I'd still be wondering who the people in this orchestra were, and where in art history I've seen them before. It was Degas.
So far, it's as if I could draw one long, upward curving line marking the development of Dennis’s artistic ability. That is, if I could draw such a line. I can more easily imagine Dennis penning it, almost casually, and it — the line — going just where he wants it to go, broadening into the strong upward curve at the end and stopping just so.
It was Dennis who, back thirty years ago, taught me about sureness of line. He always knew where the line was going, didn't dawdle in the middle like many artists less sure of their craft. His lines were confident, bold when they had to be, meek when that was the message. But I think I see a little hesitation at the beginning of this next series. A little awkward as he steps tentatively into new territory.
These paintings are a startling departure out of the relative safety of figurative realism and, simultaneously, a visual and thematic extension along that long, sure, curving line. What had been the engine powering fast cars, pauses momentarily to incorporate science fictional visual concepts in an essentially mechanical progression, then veers off, around several conceptual bends into mild stumbling at first, then, gaining confidence, a wild abstraction.
I assume these colorful paintings have titles, but I don't know what they are. I do know they surprised and startled me when I discovered them during my last long look through Harper’s online portfolio.
I don't know their chronology or how their timeline fits in with the rest of his student work, but I am guessing the comparatively rough, engine-like interior / exterior above was the first, then came the more sophisticated others.
The shapes with round cutouts could almost be fenders. Their parallel tonal formations might be metal stampings like the complex, angular sculpted ‘curves’ of a sexy sports scar or motorcycle.
The red circles look a lot like tail lights, and what's to keep me from seeing those escaping, high velocity — look at the soft blurs (evergreen trees or bikes speeding away?) picket-fencing past, half up a shadowed ridge, beyond the see-through negative-space horizon in the lower right — or angular metal, fairing shapes as a high-tech motorcycle and the yawing silver shark mouth at the top as the maw of a very fast jet fighter readying for take-off?
This image is big evolutionary thrust along our imaginary curved line from Harper's comic past into his spatial future. Giant steps in the lifelong progression of his art. But in no way off the deep end. Looking back along this page, everything seems a logical enough progression, almost step by step — even if many years are missing.
But don't let the bright lights blind you. We're about to take another giant step into the future of an artist who's been forming fantasy out of lines and shapes all his life. But first, we have to clunk through a couple, more or less calculated transitional missteps toward the third dimension — some circle-around-and-figure-it-out visual ponderings through shapes and motion — before we can float off into transcendent space.
Fire God looks like a cartoony paper being of Mexican ancestry bound in a warehouse of doom. Or maybe an acid freaked escapee from a socialist dream Orozco painting. Mayhaps even a strange space creature from the future. Dressed in white with orange bits flaming out of his halo or wild fringe radiating out from his black Shotgun Sam hat — with Bekins boxes scattering on either side like the temple falling after Sampson's haircut.
Neither is Harper's most successful nor singular vision. Too many concepts competing in mass and line and intention. One of those, wouldn't-it-be-great-if ideas on paper taken too far into too many dimensions.
Another conceptual competition is this motorized bi-polar political statement of interchanging self waving flags. We get it, of course, but there's a vagueness of purpose, something missing in the translation from verbal to physical, a net energy loss in the transferral.
Mishaps, missteps or misdirections maybe. Perhaps just some pause in the continuum. Time to rethink, regroup till the tsunami hits.
From these light and bright still shots I had imagined some complex, oceanic, rocking wave motion, impelling air like a tsunami pushes hydro destruction, but what its dual flat blades actually do is roll like big paddle wheels, in tandem unison, in place.
A dully lit monochrome online video shows these interior expanses windmilling together, arcing through the close rectangular aperture of upstairs atrium. But it did not show the giant gyring stream of translucent sunlight and shadows, speeding and slowing, angling, distorting and crisscross flowing over the turning, alternately wrinkled and tensioned surfaces of the flat radiating propellers in what must have been an all-day every sunshiny day show of lights and darks.
Had to be long hours of mechanical attention and dedication to too many niggling details to produce the steady motion and tight fit in the kinetic play of scale and motion in this impressive, even inspiring, though ultimately simple work.
Awed as I have been along this meandering trajectory, I was yet unprepared for what, in this set piece story of slowly arcing lines and words and masses, will be the final act.
Imagine my extrapolated awe in seeing this remarkable venture into the third dimension floating in dark concentric space. This is not a Dennis Harper I could have imagined.
His alien structure is subtle, sophisticated and surreal. It's high tech and high concept, manifesting a mind and skill set way past fast cars, easy fun or political digs.
Played out in simplified soft shape and form, rippling shadow shades behind and a bright, techy textured circling tubular mass, this is the one piece of all of Harper's student work I'd most like to see and touch and walk through.
It's called Rites of Transition, but it doesn't just transit, it transcends, and I can't wait to see what Dennis Harper does after this.
I just hope it doesn't take another 30 years.
I opened your email this afternoon and have just quickly scanned over the story. I'll read the article carefully and correct any fundamentally flawed actual information as soon as I can. It's not often that I get to see myself through someone else's eyes. It's interesting to compare your impressions and recollections of me with the persona and stories I've fabricated in my own mind. For now I can tell you that the guy standing next to the Paper Motorcycle is a fellow student, not me, and that my wife, Georgia, is the person standing next to the Tsunami installation.
These comments are sporadic but are in the same sequence as the passages that they refer to in the article. A very interesting aspect to your article is that you are interpreting and speculating about a person and his art based almost entirely on the comparison of recently excavated evidence to familiar artifacts from the past.
Some of the information I'm providing is background that you would otherwise have no way of knowing and so may not be appropriate for the perspective from which you base your article. You may or may not find this useful:
1. From the mid 70s to early 80s I worked for Oat Willie's Department Store Inc., a manufacturing and distributing company (not associated with Oat Willie's Head Shop), as a product designer, graphic artist, and advertising designer.
2. Jay Gaulding and I opened a head shop called Chicken River Trading Company in Las Vegas, New Mexico and within a couple of years opened shops in Taos and Santa Fe as well.
(FYI: Here's a tale of Hippie entrepreneurship in the 70s. At the height of the "Harper Empire" I owned the head shop on Greenville Ave., a printing shop around the corner on Oram, Harthomp and Moran Natural Foods Store across the street and one on Forest Lane, and the three stores in New Mexico. In ... 1977 ... I sold the last of my businesses.)
3. "Lips" is a detail from a kinetic sculpture (stage prop) used in a performance piece titled "LipSync" that I did at U.T. (I'll send you CD of it some day) >> Return to image.
4. "Bad-Ass Orchestra" is derived from a Degas painting titled "The Orchestra of the Opera," 1868-1869. >> Return to image.
5. JPG 01 is titled "Urban Assault." In it an abstracted car engine defines a cityscape — an allusion to a particularly American cultural phenomenon. >> Return to image.
FYI: You're right about the chronology of the new paintings. "Urban Assault" represents the culmination of two years of experimentation in advanced painting at U.T. but is a crude first step into some new territory. Since then I've tried to refine the idea as well as my use of color, paint handling, and sense of spatial depth — my shortcomings during undergrad studies. >> Return to image.
6. jpg 03 is a Photoshop study for a painting titled "Airwing." You would be hard pressed to find the difference between it and a jpg of the actual painting (which I will try to post on my webspace soon). >> Return to image.
That's it. Your article is like a Tarot reading by a particularly insightful swami.
FYI: I have two exhibitions in Houston coming up in late June and early July. The first is a group show in a gallery called Fine Line in which "Airwing" and possibly other paintings will be shown, and the other show will be at a gallery called ArtScan during the annual ArtHouston exhibitions of emerging artists.
It's one of those art walks with about 30 or so participating galleries. In it I will have the Motorcycle and Piano sculptures and possibly 3 or 4 paintings.
I was recently accepted into the M.F.A. program at San Francisco Art Institute, which I plan to begin in the fall of 2006.
Thanks, J R
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