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Local artist Tim Harriss' "Extreme Mannerism" adds humor to famous works.

A Twist of Face


Here is something you can do at home. Holding your art history book in front of you, thumb quickly through all of its pages as though it were a "flip book" and observe the story of art being told.

What you will primarily see is the Big Story told in the faces and deeds of mankind. Every now and then the scenery may veer off to show us a landscape, compose a still life, offer a floor plan, flatten everything into intersecting planes or go all white, black or red on us, but it always comes back to the central theme: ourselves. Thus your flip book will reveal a contortionist who looks a little like someone you know, changing his outfits, circumstances and expressions.

Speaking to that, Tim Harriss is having his second exhibition ever, a one-man show at the Sweetwater Cafe this month. His subject is also, the face. Harriss, not unlike the early Dutch masters, has basically taught himself how to paint through the careful observation of the Old Masters. His formal education consists of exactly one full year in the Art Foundation Program at VCU back in 1983, followed by one fall semester. Then he decided he'd rather play music and have fun — he played guitar and sang with two of the Richmond area's pioneering post-punk bands, Burma Jam and Kepone. But whatever the AFO program planted in his mind continued to gestate. Seventeen years later, it blossomed with a small but fascinating show of Harriss' paintings at Urban Artifacts last spring.

This new collection of portraits at Sweetwater, modestly titled "Paintings by Tim Harriss," is even more amazing, delving much deeper than the image on his invitation indicates. Harriss goes shopping for subjects from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. His favorite tool is a huge full-color catalog of inventory from the Uffizi and Pitti collections that offers blue-blooded portraits — often commissioned work — from great Italian, German and Dutch artists, among them Del Sarto, Titian, Holbein and Lotto. No one's work is safe now. Harriss whisks the Old Masters' sitters' countenances away from the agreeable diplomacy of the original painting and runs them through his computer program. He tweaks and bothers the subjects' identifiable features into expressions that expose other emotions and he carefully paints the scene anew.

Lorenzo Lotto's "Portrait of a Young Man" morphs from a benevolent and serene individual showing the world his self-possession to one who presumably has something crawling dangerously high up his pants leg. His restrained concern is palpable ... and humorous. He is, despite his immediate predicament, rendered in the generous glowing aristocratic manner of the academic painter, and thus he remains steadfastly noble while additionally a little more human. The pretense of a fastidiously continent person is traded in for the sort we end up observing in a reality-based TV program or recognizing in ourselves, not to mention the occasional dash of Howdy-Doody in a few works.

In a wild sense the demonstrative Mannerist tendencies that evolved from the solemnified Renaissance identity are emphasized to the extreme here. This new translation is a straightforward evolution with Harriss applying a hard-hitting new version, Photo-Shop Mannerism.

While most of Harriss' images are of single studies, a couple include two or more subjects. A particularly fine one is a detail of a collaboration between Titian and Georgionne entitled "The Concert."

Harriss has not entirely turned the characters into caricatures in this one, just skewed them a bit for a strange, affecting edge. It gives the work a nice incomprehensible tension outside of humor, but not too far away. The relationship of the two skeptical figures almost becomes a rumination on the relationship between two artistic egos trying to collaborate.

Harriss is progressing forward in such leaps and bounds with his work simply compared to the stage he was at six months ago. I'm no prophet on the investment value of art, but if I were you, I'd go get one just in case. The flip book may be looking for some new faces.

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