David Harrison’s work may initially seem otherworldly, but these paintings are created with an intimacy that places them firmly within the real world. For his exhibition “Nightshift” at Sargent’s Daughters in New York, Harrison combines melting celestial and earthly forms that invite us to cultivate both our intellectual and salacious sides. For example, on display are cinematic paintings of taxicab drivers, whose noir aura combines filmic beauty, historical rigour, and an unabashed celebration of queer sexuality. Here we discussed Harrison’s historical and personal influences, as well as some tips on snagging a hot straight guy. “Nightshift” is on view until 16 October 2016.
WS: I’ve never seen paintings quite like this before, but I could suggest some potential comparisons, such as van Gogh’s Night Café or Frida Kahlo’s work.
DH: I am influenced by others’ work, obviously, but I do not know if it is a direct correlation. Most of the influence from other painters is subliminal. One of my biggest influences is Goya. I don’t go for his painting techniques, but I go for the atmosphere that he creates. There’s also Picasso. I don’t do cubist work, but I think, how did he simplify things and create such a powerful image? I feel more a part of the tradition of English painting. People don’t think of English art as very radical, but it truly is, especially as you get to Art Nouveau.
WS: It is interesting that you mention Picasso, because there is a tension in this work between pared down forms and exuberant forms.
DH: There is an element of simplification and abstraction. I like to say what I’m going to say in the easiest way possible.
WS: Maybe this complicates reading the paintings as surreal. You’re often paying attention to the reality of these forms.
DH: I get some of that from Victorian painting, especially Victorian fairy painting, because they painted in a believable way. It’s like these little creatures that are flying around really exist! Likewise, in my Ode To Joy (Saints & Sinners), this figure really did exist. There’s no fantasy in it at all. That was what he was into; that’s what turned him on. He was straight. I never actually paint gay men because they’re too willing to do this kind of thing! He’s got this bloke-ish quality to him. He was a married man, but he got a kick out of dressing up like this. I met him at a party; he was flattered, and just like that I had this huge hunk on my bed!
WS: With a lot of painters who identify as queer, there’s always this assumption that their subjects are queer as well. I love the discomfort, or the tension, of this being a subject who didn’t identify as gay.
DH: That’s what inspired me to do the painting. I don’t really live in a gay world. I suppose it is my generation. “Gay” is not a lifestyle that I buy into. I think it’s more political for me.
WS: If you don’t subscribe to traditional markers of gayness, how would you describe your sexuality?
DH: I feel like a leopard who is looking at a group of wildebeests. I see a gang of straight men – cab drivers are my forte – and I pick out a weak one and separate him!
WS: The one who you think you could flip?
DH: Yeah! Men like sex, and if you’re just going to give them a blowjob, they rarely turn it down! It’s just that you have to know how to ask them and where to ask them.
WS: How do you ask them? I need to know the answer! I’m waiting on six boys to text me back today but I know most of them will bail. This makes me think about the question of transgression.
DH: What is transgression? [Laughter]
WS: I was going to ask you! Do these images feel strange to you? Are you intimate with them? Do they feel like transgression?
DH: These paintings are me. They’re my children. I believe in the spirit of everything.
WS: Do you consider your work to be activist or political?
DH: I didn’t used to but now we are losing so much around us that it probably is activist.
WS: As an aside, what are your favourite movies? I’m feeling a David Lynch connection.
DH: I hate David Lynch! He’s pretentious! I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s really political, because they treat humans like we treat animals – chopping them up in drag! I do love old Hollywood. I love Jayne Mansfield but I hate Marilyn Monroe. I detest icons, especially when they say “gay icons.”
WS: So what about Madonna?
WS: Judy Garland?
DH: Oh I do love Judy Garland. She has a dark side. Imagine her having a fag with the devil!
Words by William J. Simmons.
All images courtesy of the artist, Sargent’s Daughters, New York, and Victoria Miro, London.