This February, Abigail Ogilvy Gallery looks forward to presenting a solo show by Holly Harrison, The Language of Lines. Harrison will present a collection of mixed-media pieces that focus on the interplay between the organic shapes and fluidity of birds, and the geometry of repeated horizontal lines—painted, collaged and contained in imagery of human structures.
Harrison began working with bird imagery about seven years ago, inspired by the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. She began with a series of collages, each one dedicated to a different stanza of the poem. Since then, she continues to compose her collages with the essence of poetry in the rhythms and melody of her work.
A master’s degree in literature and creative writing, and many years spent as a professional writer, reveal themselves in the poetic sensibilities engrained in her Strata series, several of which will be included in the show. Comprised of multiple bands of imagery and collage, the layers work like stanzas of modern verse, with bits of meaning half-hidden underneath like symbolism and subtext. The words she uses to describe this work are reminiscent of how writers describe literature. “There’s a resonance that happens between each piece to create a whole experience,” she says. “I wanted to create a dialogue between all the different elements.”
Over time, the highly banded Strata paintings began to open up as Harrison moved from juxtaposing imagery to build a narrative, to forming a single image or a pair of blended images. What remained constant was the horizon line, which she carries over from collage to painted elements. “When I moved into The Language of Lines series,” she says, “I became interested in transparency—the idea of what is underneath, what is hidden, and what you don’t see.”
Harrison’s pieces begin with a colorful underpainting, which she masks and unmasks with layers of paint. At completion, the underlying hues still peek through, muted by whites and grays as though coated in mist. Black-and-white photographic imagery blends seamlessly into the painted background, creating a discourse between the repeated geometry of the lines and the more organic shapes of birds, tree branches, and the curves and wires of utility poles. The birds always find their way in, sometimes at the very beginning, as she pulls colors and textures from their image, and sometimes after everything else has fallen into place.
Harrison often works on several canvases at once, creating a base that leaves the final product open to possibility. Choosing from hundreds of photographs she takes while chasing down flocks in pursuit of the right moment, she is particular about which birds ultimately make it into her artwork. “Sometimes a shot is too complete,” she says. “It can stand alone without alteration.” She searches through her photos for striking images that would be complemented by the lines and textures added by her collages.
Her finished pieces, like her process, show the way nature and order cohabit the spaces we navigate, just as birds flit in and out of human domain. “People build in the world, they change their environment to suit themselves, and nature just keeps adapting,” she explains. “Birds and human dwellings intersect where they share an environment. They are these wild creatures but they're so integrated into our lives.”
Harrison’s favorite materials include samples of drawings made by her daughter, old paintings on canvas paper by her husband, and strips of semi-transparent screen mesh. She weaves them together in the slow build up of layers that ultimately become a cohesive image.
The Language of Lines is a lyrical arrangement of the organic and the constructed, tied together by the lines of the horizon.