By Bonnie Gangelhoff
During the hours when day turns to night, Kenny Harris captures long shadows in his moody interior scenes
Earlier this year, California painter Kenny Harris attempted to identify the common threads that weave through his body of work. The occasion was a one-man show at Terrence Rogers Fine Art in Santa Monica, CA. It didn’t take him long to discern a key reoccurring element: light—specifically the indirect, soft illumination that arrives near dusk and transforms day to night. Indeed, Harris’ artistic eye has focused on atmospheric light patterns since the beginning of his short but impressive career.
At 30, he is currently preparing for his second one-man show this year: La Habana opens in November at Gallery C in Hermosa Beach, CA. And once again, Harris is chasing the light—portraying the evocative element in moody interior scenes, in this case a series of oil paintings based on a recent trip to Cuba. On this particular day, his Venice studio is dominated by a large-scale work in progress that sprawls across the cement floor. blue tile, a centerpiece of the upcoming show based on a recently completed study, depicts a corner of a room in the Havana home where he lived with a local family.
In the piece, as in many of Harris’ depictions, the floor is the star. With his classical training and boldly defined color fields and reflections, the artist creates a sense of place and suggests a mood. With his sensitive eye and keen use of the brush, inanimate objects seem to come alive. They shimmer. They glow. And they vibrate.
Using the techniques of traditional figure painting, Harris builds up thin layers into thick masses “to give the wall or floor the sensuality of flesh,” he says, whether it’s a hallway in a Portuguese office building or the floor of a subway train in New York City. “They can be totally different spaces to everyone else, but to me they are similar in condition of a quiet, contemplative space,” Harris explains. “They are common in the sense of public space and/or common in the sense of the everyday.”
But let’s get back to the light. For it is the light that gives the artist’s floors and interiors their star quality. Harris understands all too well that he follows a long tradition of painters who also relished bathing subjects in low light—his muses include 17th-century masters Jan Vermeer and Diego Velazquez. His predecessors, too, were interested in optics—how visual information enters the eye and how people perceive space, topics that continually fascinate Harris. And, as the young artist adds, even 20th-century sculptor Alberto Giacometti swore by the fading light to find purity of form. “When the bright glare fades, one’s eyes dilate and you can see with truth and clarity,” Harris explains.
Although he lives in sunny Southern California, Harris points out that his studio is a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, and fog is a frequent morning visitor. Even so, it is at the end of the day when Harris feels that the magic begins. For him, it always brings a sense of urgency. His pace quickens. The adrenaline pumps. And his brush strokes become more spontaneous. “My decisions get bolder and faster and more accurate,” he says. “I see and move with greater confidence.”
While Harris likes to keep one foot planted in what he calls the “old world”—involving regular journeys to Italy, Central America, and Mexico—he keeps the other foot planted in the new world. His roots are in California, the edge of America’s last frontier. Born in Palo Alto in 1974, Harris spent his formative years surrounded by art. His father, a market forecaster by day, spent his spare time drawing figures and belonged to a group of artists that regularly painted from life—influenced by the Bay Area figurative movement and artists like David Park and Nathan Oliviera.
Harris recalls that as a youngster he, too, liked to draw. His father’s friends were always offering him “free” advice that was far from encouraging. “Good luck, kid—it’s a rough road,” Harris recalls them saying. “I was only 10.” But some advice, he admits, has been quite beneficial. “They were always whining about not getting paid and telling me not to let that happen,” he says. “I think it gave me a business sense to respect the value of my work.”
When it came time for college, Harris enrolled at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and majored in fine art with an emphasis in printmaking and sculpture. During his junior year he studied abroad in Florence, Italy, where he took drawing and art history courses at the atelier of well-known painter Charles H. Cecil. Harris describes the classical training as a good opportunity to pick up a few more skills for his artistic “bag of tricks.” However, he shies away from following any technique, movement, or school too strictly. “Sometimes people can get too dogmatic about technique and lose their personal voice,” he says.
After graduation in 1996, he returned to San Francisco, where the course of his career was set in motion. He worked in the video-animation industry to pay the bills but began to teach himself oil painting on the side. In 1997, Harris suffered a bad knee injury that, combined with some nasty weather, confined him to his apartment for a while. He took the opportunity to get serious about painting. Although he didn’t know exactly what to paint at first, one day he was looking at the shafts of light playing on the hardwood floors of his apartment and suddenly thought, “I think I will paint the floor.” By then he was already enamored with works by Vermeer and Velazquez, and he realized that depicting floors would give him the chance to explore light.
Harris labored for six months and produced 40 paintings, mostly interiors with a few San Francisco street scenes sprinkled in. With that series completed, he decided the next logical step was to have a show. He strung some halogen lights in his living room, hung the paintings, and invited his family and friends over to see the work. About 100 people showed up at his digs in the Haight-Ashbury district, and they scooped up the paintings for about $200 each. “I’ve never had a problem getting a crowd,” he says. “I am a social person, and I’m enthusiastic about what I do.”
Wanderlust has always propelled Harris to explore new places. Thus, after a few years in San Francisco, he decided it was time for a taste of the New York art scene. By then he was ready to ditch his video-animation job and commit to a career in fine art. “I wanted to live in New York to see art at the highest level and understand what things are good and bad, even if it is not my style,” he says. “That’s important to me in an intellectual way.” Once in the city, he studied portrait and figurative painting with Frank Mason at the Art Students League of New York.
His wanderlust struck again in 2001, and he was off to Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico—bent on painting interiors, still lifes, and landscapes. He attributes his peripatetic nature to his parents, who regularly took the family on vacations across the country and to Mexico. “We lived in a humble house with Hondas,” he explains. “We spent our money on travel.” Harris was headed back to New York from his Central American foray when the tragedies of 9/11 unfolded. For him, that was a sign to return to California. “I didn’t want to move back into a war zone,” he says.
Until a few years ago, Harris didn’t have gallery representation. That all changed rather serendipitously in 2002 during the Venice Art Walk. Gallery owner Terrence Rogers and his partner, Terry Martin, stopped by Harris’ studio, and both were impressed with the young artist’s paintings. The gallery soon began showing a few of his works, and in January 2003 Harris had his first show, which came close to selling out. He was only 28.
Harris counted on Rogers being around for a long time to come, guiding his career and offering advice. “An art dealer with the eye of a painter,” Harris is fond of calling him. But Rogers died suddenly of a heart attack earlier this year. He was only 52.
The loss was a shock. Harris says that Rogers had visited him in his studio only the week before, and they had talked about his future. Because the art dealer believed in him, the loss has renewed Harris’ vow to “trust his gut” and paint what he wants to paint with increased vigor and dedication. He is continuing with plans for another show at the gallery next spring. While the subject matter is yet to be disclosed, viewers can expect to find themselves following Harris’ visual leader, the light, as it slices through corners of rooms, spills across walls, and illuminates open doorways.
Harris is represented by Terrence Rogers Fine Art, Santa Monica, CA; Gallery C, Hermosa Beach, CA; and www.littlejohngallery.com.
Featured in October 2005