If you’ve never heard of Zach Harris, it’s OK: I hadn’t either until I stepped into Galerie Perrotin in Paris this summer. And I hate to say it but I was primarily going to write about another show, Civilization Iteration by Xu Zhen for the blog.
So why am I writing about Zach Harris three months later? Because that day, I got to glimpse into many phantasmagoric worlds, crafted out of a very clever brain with talented hands.
Just as the complexity of Zach Harris’ works started unravelling as I walked to them, past them and then back for a longer look, I knew time, distance and a sprinkling from my early learnings in Indian Art would shed more light and appreciation for the long run. It’s definitely the kind of art that deserves a museum bench or a meditation cushion.
The kind of art to look at intently to start travelling without moving.
But first, what was it in Zach Harris’ works that immediately reminded me of India?While the jewel tone colors of “purple clouds, orange sunsets, pink sunrises¹” radiate warmly from a distance, they seem chromatically tempered and physically contained by washed-out sculptural elements which, for all I know, have the sun-bleached quality of sandstone. Except it’s painted carved wood.
Indeed, the work of Zach Harris looks less like paintings and more like architectural models for what I would like to call the gardens of his mind.
When I say gardens, I am arching back to the original Paradise Garden: Persian, walled and adorned with flowered terraces. Gardens were meticulously tendered to represent the “earthly counterpart to paradise²”. Planned using court astrologers on hand, they were vegetal works of art mirroring the minds which commissioned them until they later became burial places for Mughal emperors.
Now Zach Harris is no emperor and he is from California so his gardens are more “mindscapes than landscapes³”. They are unruly yet incredibly bejewelled with painted patterns and illusionistic effects.
Look at how he carved organic depressions in and out of his paintings, raising small garden parterres covered with reddish-brown ink-pen sketches. Echoing red chalk drawings of Baroque figures or fantasy geological formations? Either way, I am no longer in an art gallery.
Such windows into his mind show scenes of evolution, revolution and dissolution. Zach Harris revisits these themes in many of his pieces, as if trying to filter the world he lives in through the prism of art history and his own artistry. Trying to make sense…
Some of these scenes are reminiscent of Mughal miniatures; many are ink-pen sketches à la Hieronimus Bosch in his Garden of Earthly Delights; others look mystical and psychedelic in colors.
All are full of art historical references from the Renaissance, Arts & Crafts to Symbolism, executed with a multitude of techniques ranging from spray painting to intaglio.
They also have “a hint of Californian psychedelia4” but is it all for show? No.
In his “series of large functional calendar paintings of the year 2020…(he) plays with the structure of days and months to create algorithms of colour and form5” which again retrace evolution paths visible in these ancestral calendars turned color wheels.
It is fair to say that Zach Harris rejects flatness: formerly, figuratively and conceptually.
Fair to his words that “a painting should make for a memorable, thrilling experience that we can never quite figure out”, his is Art that implodes and explodes.
And suddenly mathematical algorithms are so much more appealing when they create such suspended gardens of the mind…
Even though visually there is an apocalyptic undertone in the flame motifs visible in Philosopher’s Stone (in 2020) or Sunrise Sunset (in 2020) which again speak of dissolution and fear of mortality, Zach Harris declares it’s all “healthy and not a negative”. He is on a path…
I find these flame motifs ambivalent anyway. They have too much of the paisley or boteh vegetal motif in them, bringing me back to a lush Mughal garden where mortality has been envisioned with beauty rather than fear.
Which reminded me of Zach Harris’ “long look6” at trees in particular, and what made me think of his paintings as gardens of his mind.
For him, trees “…easily start to become much more than you’d expect, which is the experience I try to base my studio practice on7“. Zach Harris is very ritualistic, starting each day with a couple hours spent drawing his subconscious stream of ideas. When what started as a meditation becomes a visual trance, the moment when everything dissolves actually brings a new painting in resolution.
And this right here bears all the signs of Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, meditating to find resolution to the cycle of suffering that the world endures, until Enlightenment be reached. This was 6th Century BC but it does not get old.
In Cloud Kitty Arrival, small hands caught in the act of drawing turn mudras (the Buddha’s hand gestures) and join a pantheon of symbolic Indian references present throughout Zach Harris’ works: paisley motifs, heart-shaped bodhi tree leaves, the elephant, astrological calendars, cosmic systems and even the sunset to sunrise colors symbolising samsara, the cycle of life.
Much like Buddha resisting demon Mara and vanquishing the sadness, disappointment and depravity of the world, I think Zach Harris is painting the many steps on his personal path beautifully. He fully deserves a “long look” from us.
As much as my pictures give you a taste of what Zach Harris’ work is all about, you’ve got to see it for yourself. This short video from Galerie Perrotin will get you up close.
A Zach Harris show is planned for 2019 at David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles. Looking forward to it already.
¹ Martha Kirszenbaum, March 2017, Galerie Perrotin
² Section on Gardens of Paradise based on my readings of Michael and Diana Preston, Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire, Chapter 12.
³ Leah Ollman, “Review: Primordial forces at play in paintings of Zach Harris,” Los Angeles Times, Critic’s Choice, July 3, 2013,
4 Martha Kirszenbaum, March 2017, Galerie Perrotin
5 “Zach Harris — Why I Paint,” Phaidon.com, September 27, 2016
6 Wolf, Kate, “The Long Look,” Art Los Angeles Reader, January 2015, pp. 15
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
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