What might a burning house, a jack-o-lantern-ed figure and a hypnotic spiral have as common ground in a gallery setting? These jocular elements find root not just as occult curios but as seminal tropes in twelve new paintings by Portland-based painter Olivia Faith Harwood. Currently on view at Fuller Rosen Gallery through March 13, 2022, “Possessions, Possessions” entertains the secular as well as the spiritual. This new series of works, while grounded in the artist’s personal world, is meant to subvert our understanding and appreciation of the limits of perception.
There is an innate dissonance between the tangible and intangible worlds that Harwood binds to her own narrative. Her ability to weave the mundanity of dice, a dog, a pearl necklace into her fever dream settings demonstrates the power of the canvas to mystify and enchant viewers. In Haunted Figurine the subject is a self-portrait of Harwood, with a half human, half skeletal body, with the head of a black cat replacing her own. This hybrid figure emanates an eerie fluorescent glow, confirming the otherworldliness of its character. Are they an apparition? How did they come to exist in this composition?
Other objects float in the painting’s liminal space. The flame of a candle in the upper right-hand corner illuminates the rest of the scene and mirrors the ghostly glow of the anthropomorphic feline. A large arachnid descends into the middle of the frame, but a pair of shears floating to its right appears headed in its direction, headed to snip its web strands. Small framed paintings – of flowers and an all-seeing eye – dot the pattern field which itself appears stitched together from a variety of materials. Upon each observation, new furtive details and visions unfold themselves before the viewer unveiling the piece’s drama and appeal.
In appreciation of what could be considered a metaphysical materiality, each painting has us questioning how to decipher the intricacies contained within. Ritual depicts a fallen, winged figure curled up on the ground. Flanking this long-haired character are two nude angels, a nondescript nude in a devilish mask to the right, and a looming wolf figure to the left. These four figures observe the resting creature while a fire rages in the background. The ephemeral shadows of other beings are backlit as they engage in what we can understand as ritual dance and communion. While we may not be privy to the particulars of the central figure’s backstory, the auxiliary figures indicate some sort of bacchanalian reverie.
Ritual has a stippled surface and so provides an interesting juxtaposition with Wax and Wane displayed next to it on the gallery wall. The latter presents to gallery go-ers the image of a pink two-story home seen burning in the middle of a green pasture. In the foreground is a white and orange dog bounding through the frame, all around it float an assortment of game pieces. The temperament of the two works is discordant – whereas Ritual appears jubilant and ceremonial, Wax and Wane presumes an ominous aura with its thunderous lightning and dark skies. The blazing fire as a recurring symbol, once pointed out, feels too happenstance to be anything but intentional. In this sense, Wax and Wane is reconfigured as the flipside to the supernatural ritual observed earlier. The eyes we see in the blaze of Ritual become the literal windows from the burning home in Wax and Wane. The fluffy spotted dog with the tip of its tail slightly aflame is running across our field of vision, as if we might imagine the canine able to hop from one canvas to another to join its companions.
Painted in smooth, even strokes that could also speak to the rushed determination of the canine, Wax and Wane further muddles our senses. Despite the perilous landscape, the inclusion of game pieces – dice, jacks, pawns – subsume the work back into the collective playful, albeit at times disorienting, inflection of this exhibition. For Harwood, these works toggle a balance between comfort and threat. As she explained to me in an interview: “That combination…creates not only a visual tension, but [an] emotional tension for the audience. [That pushes] me to want to create an unsettling feeling and pull the viewer in for as long as I can. The characters, patterns and objects I portray within my work are sometimes familiar to the audience, creating a sense of recognition and safety. But the burning houses, poisonous spiders and grinning malicious faces create a haunting reaction.”
Power and Eyes are Mosaics are further variations on self-portraits both taking on the magical capabilities of enrapturing the audience through the artist’s direct gaze. Visually implicit in Eyes are Mosaics is a half pearl, half chain link coil, which at its center depicts Harwood’s own likeness. As our sight is progressively pulled towards the center, the focus moves from the cobwebs and stars painted in the background, blurring and achieving an ever moving effect. As if casting a dizzying spell, the subject in this work calls us to her as if she might have all the answers. Power in turn draws in gallery-goers more overtly; there is no bewitching spiral, only a caricature of Harwood as a jester, brow furrowed, smirking, a twinkle in her eye. She depicts herself wearing a collar as an accoutrement to this person but it is not rendered soft or fabric-like. Instead it appears heavy, like a block or a pedestal upon which her head floats and conjures authority from within the frame. There is no evading this direct gaze, and once locked in we can only be left to guess at her intention for keeping us there.
Inspired by juvenile symbolism, lived experiences and a reckoning with a turbulent, grim present this collection of paintings undertakes a prophetic quality. As self-portraits, Harwood is both author and vessel for the larger narrative at play. Observing the paintings as a unified suite, what these works have in common is a mastery of manipulation. The word “possession(s)” in this exhibition presents a triad: that of the fact of holding and having, to possess; the item held, the possession; as well as the state of being under control by an outside force, to be possessed. Each of these we can witness in the works at large: a melancholy clown captured in solemn blues and greys; baby dolls, moths and brilliant crystal balls hovering in the air; the sly jack-o-lantern face of Harwood winking at her audience mischievously. Maneuvering between these three meanings becomes the game at stake, and it is the viewers discretion to find their place on the playing board.
In this fantastical inaugural exhibition, Harwood demonstrates a forceful grasp on conceptual complexity. With the artist’s distinctive treatment of her subject matter, visitors can understand the depths to which she is bound to the tokens of her imagination. The surreal landscapes inspired in these works assert an ethereal permanence that, while whimsical, has deep roots in the author’s conscience. In this manner the paintings take on a divine nature, spared of campy cheesiness, and take on a bold staying power both in this realm and any other.
“Possessions, Possessions” is on view at Fuller Rosen Gallery through March 13th. The gallery is located at 1928 NW Lovejoy Street and is open Thursday through Sunday 12-5 pm or by appointment.