See-Through Fantasies: Mirage at James Harris Gallery

The concept of the mirage is one of intrigue, as evidenced by pop culture’s frequent attempts to define its mystery. A floating desert oasis memorably deceives Daffy Duck into inhaling a mouthful of sand  (“Aqua Duck,” 1963), while Steve Wynn’s Mirage casino enchants Las Vegas visitors with its lush terrarium and waterfall-lined swimming pools.  Within the context of such widely known references, the question of how the mirage can function within a painting is an interesting one posed by James Harris Gallery’s group show focused on this theme.  –Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor

Will Henry | In the Dust, 2011. gouache on paper, 11” x 10”

As a medium well acquainted with the visual manipulation of familiar objects and scenes, the medium of painting easily lends itself to exploration of the mirage; yet the small group of paintings included in Mirage at James Harris Gallery approach the subject from such divergent directions that it presents surprisingly diverse scope of inquiry across nine works of art.

Claire Cowie | Treehouse no. 2, 2012. gouache, ink, graphite, sumi color and collage on paper, 41 ¾” x  29 ¾”

The desert inevitably appears several times throughout the show.  Claire Cowie’s Treehouse 1 and Treehouse 2 spawn luscious, intricately colored worlds within the branches of trees that unexplainably flourish against stark, sandy landscapes.  While no single narrative pervades the web of entangled scenes, its organic structure and vibrant accents imply an optimistic, imagined ecosystem has somehow emerged from nothingness.

Mary Ann Peters | Mirage (from a history of ruin), 2012. ink, watercolor on clayboard, 18” x 32”

The two paintings from Seattle artist Mary Ann Peters’s “From a History of Ruin” series included in Mirage pull the associations of the subject into an entirely different context. Desert hues, as well as the intricate entanglements seen in Cowie’s tree houses, also appear in Peter’s works.  However, the intensity of movement Peters creates through a swirling mass of densely layered yellow and brown watercolors invokes a sense of severity and seriousness that departs from the whimsical mirage.  Referencing a recent visit to Lebanon with this series, the sandstorm of fragmented images blowing across both works an approach; more an indecipherable cloud of complexity than a shining oasis, this mirage simultaneously inspires a closer look and the urge to turn away.

Will Henry | In Tandem, 2011. gouache on paper, 11” x 10”

The most tongue in cheek take on the mirage appears within two paintings by Texas artist Will Henry: In the Dust and In Tandem.  A painted canvas floats through a stream of sand in In the Dust, mimicking the jarring objects of surrealism that invade otherwise standard, desert-scape paintings. In Tandem’s billboard portrays an unfinished, unmemorable subject in romantic reds, suggesting a wistful artist seeking the mirage of an alternative subject that in reality appears likely to be banal at best.  It is temping to brush off theses paintings’ remarks on the problems of imagined subjects as overly clever. However, particularly in the context of Mirage, Henry’s works raise questions persistent beyond the confines of the show, asking what exactly do we try to see, and, more importantly, what do we miss in the process.

Mirage is on view at James Harris Gallery in Seattle, WA through April 28, 2012. The group show includes paintings by Claire Cowie, Eric Elliott, Marcelino Gonçalves, Will Henry and Mary Ann Peters.


Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Manager of Adult Public Programs at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)


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