Trace Elements

Matthew Harris’s studio exemplifies a self-contained quality that many artists seek in their workspaces. It has been ordered to facilitate a mode of making that requires his total engagement in the process. This is important because although he relishes the days that he is able to work uninterrupted, they are rare. Teaching, family, the everyday demands of life, all have a tendency to disrupt the flow. His clarity and focus must be hard to maintain alongside this fragmented daily rhythm. However, the studio and the practice seem so intimately connected to all other aspects of his life that it is hard not to see them as continuous with each other. Matthew talks about being able to “compartmentalise” his time, but there is a greater sense of coherency than that would suggest. It seems more apt to describe a composition, in which the disparate elements of his life dance around each other with varying degrees of harmony, but with a consistent internal logic.

The musicality in Harris’s work is clear. We can recognise the complex structural elements of composition, but he is also interested in the formal visual qualities of the idiosyncratic systems of notation developed by composers such as Stockhausen and Cage. Musical notation could be described as ‘configured time’. The progressive form of the score graphically represents the linear unfolding of time, with the notes corresponding to interventions in time, a carving out of time.

The dominant factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame. Andrei Tarkovsky memorably described cinema as “sculpting in time”. Tarkovsky’s metaphor also perfectly describes Harris’s work. The rhythm of mark making is disrupted. Repeated patterns are broken up, they disappear and reappear in reverse. Sometimes the repetition is suggested but remains unresolved. The edges of the work, whilst not uniform, are clearly defined, finished. However, he often continues a fragment slightly beyond the edge, allowing the rhythm to resonate, transcending the formal limits of the object’s dimensions. The self-contained unity of the object is subverted. The structural elements that first strike one are destabilized.

Whilst this corresponds to the potential of cinema and to the interrupted sequential development of much modern music, both film and music impress their own time on the viewer or listener. Both disappear at the same moment that they come into being. These textiles stand in front of us and invite us to look in our own time. The order of observation is suggested by the structure of the work, but the complexity of that structure means that the eye doesn’t settle into a linear reading. It moves restlessly across the surface. Returning to points of detail, we are drawn beyond the surface into a deeper sense of how the work is constructed, into Harris’s making processes.

Harris does a great deal of preparation and experimentation so that when he comes to make the finished piece he has a clear idea of what he is looking for. Whilst this approach can be seen as highly systematic, it is about immersing himself in a process so that he can work intuitively. His work balances intention and chance. He chooses processes that are simple and repetitious so as to allow the interplay of formal and contingent elements. There is a kind of rigour to Harris’s methodology that sits easily with his openness about what is revealed. He sets the conditions in a thoughtful, controlled way but as things happen he resists reworking them, he doesn’t question their rightness. He wants to feel a building tension in the work, between control and accident.

This time-consuming, durational aspect is written into the work, imbuing it with a depth and a richness that holds the eye. We scan the surface and speculate about what lies beneath and behind. We sense that these are three-dimensional objects and that the surface reflects a structural rhythm that runs through the interior.

In Japan there is a highly valued aesthetic quality called wabi-sabi. It is based on the belief that time per se helps to make known the essence of things. Sabi literally means rust, and refers to the patina of time. It is a notion of beauty that is based on the idea that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.

Harris’s recent work has drawn on his visits to Japan and wabi-sabi is a powerful reference for him, but the worn and patinated qualities that attract him, are not an attempt to reproduce the affects of aging. It is more like an attempt to contain time, or, to return to Tarkovsky’s metaphor, to sculpt time. It is alive with time, with the ‘consistent internal logic’ referred to earlier, with the rhythmic cycle of making and unmaking.

Paul Harper