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Malcolm on My Mind

Author: Simon Gennard, Blumhardt/Creative New Zealand Curatorial Intern

It’s been a month since I started the Blumhardt/Creative New Zealand curatorial internship here at The Dowse. Before I got here, at least two people told me to look into Malcolm Harrison’s quilts during the research phase of my internship. I knew Harrison’s name, and I knew some of his work, but I’d never really thought to look closely.

Harrison’s quilts are bright, dense, playful, and queer. They have a narrative language particular to themselves; a language at once literary, allegorical, and deeply personal. I’ve spent the past three weeks trying to get my head around this language. I’ve been poring through The Dowse’s archives, reading reviews of his shows, and speaking to his friends and colleagues. Janne Land, his dealer, told me yesterday that Malcolm’s quilts sometimes remind her of Matisse paintings. I see Matisse, too, but tend to sway more towards David Hockney.

Malcolm’s own writing about his work reveals the artist to be warm, generous and somewhat coy. In an artist statement accompanying his 1991 show Echoes and Reflections, held here at The Dowse, he writes:

The works in this exhibition are allegories, echoes, and reflections of experiences in my life. The happenings remain obscure for I leave their interpretations in the hands of the viewer. Some pieces may hold a message or meaning according to one’s own experiences. Others will remain hidden in their decoration. There are no set rules. The viewer is accountable for what they wish.

The closer I look at Harrison’s work, the more I feel that perhaps his visual language isn’t something to be mastered. Some of the stories these quilts have to tell may remain opaque. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. Part of their appeal, I think, is knowing that not everything can be known.

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