Critics and peers may huff and grumble, but if the exhibition proves anything, it’s that Harris – as much a one-man Brand these days as a circular-breathing one man band – is a warm, curious and ceaselessly inventive artist who’s not afraid to take risks, and with (just about) as justified a claim to take up residency in a summer exhibition as anyone. The man ripped up the rule book before Banksy attached his first mask.
The exhibition opens with a collage of the man’s career – A wall-mounted CV of sorts, trotting through gold and silver discs, TV tie-in books (Rolf’s Cartoon Time still something of a classic in SevenStreets’ eyes), Look-In comic covers, wobbleboards (who knew the plywood percussion was invented by Harris?) and personal ephemera. It’s a whistle-stop history lesson in quite why we’ve taken this adopted antipodean to our hearts in a way that, say, we just never will with someone more homegrown, like Cilla, or Tarby. An everyman who got lucky, and never tried to force Thatcher down our throats, or name-check the clebs they’ve overwintered with in a Marbella villa.
Diving into the exhibition proper we’re treated, firstly, to an assemblage of Rolf On Art canvasses – an ersatz collection of facsimiles: Rolf ‘doing’ the great masters. And it’s here that he comes unstuck. True, critiquing these is akin to a music journo comparing the relative merits of Crowded Scouse over No Way Sis in the parallel universe of the Mathew Street festival: it’s really rather pointless. But the selection does show where Harris’s strengths and weaknesses lay. And his primitive Gainsborough is simply shocking.
Curiously, for one so humane and personable, it’s Harris’ portraiture that remains frustratingly detached. Competent, yes, but lacking in lucidity. His portrait of the Queen (described by our monarch as ‘friendly’) is polite, but despite its close cropped proximity, it’s distant too. It’s as if getting under our skin puts Harris strangely outside his comfort zone (the only exception being his tender portraits of long-time partner Alwen).
We get the feeling that Harris’ temperament – fizzing, restless, mutable – isn’t suited to protracted sittings with subjects – but, rather, under the baking sun of the outback, the big skies of Provence, or in the misty streets of Venice, with the meter running on his gondola.
Harris’ landscapes are quite wonderful. Kinetic, assured and illuminating – they capture the heat and essence of place with minimum fuss: whether a tin shack in the outback, painted on livid orange canvas, with paint dripping and hissing in the heat, or a shimmering British summer (remember them?), the white cliffs of Dover sailing over the channel like the Cutty Sark at full tilt. And, as a rule, the less strokes he takes to capture a place, the better. Rolf’s greatest gift is like that of the great poets – capturing the spirit of a time and place with minimum intervention. A sudden explosion of truth. What’s left out is as important as what’s captured. Maybe that’s why his fiddly take on Renaissance paintings is so out of place.
The final room consists of digeridoos, a replica of Harris’ scruffy studio and more of Harris’ wonderfully commanding large-scale canvasses of his home country. And there’s a few Liverpool canvases – including one of a curator at the Walker – that are fun to seek out. And that’s the overriding impression this summer exhibition leaves: it’s great fun. And we get the feeling Rolf would be more than happy with that assessment.
Rolf Harris, Can You Tell What It Is Yet.
Until 11 August, Walker Art Gallery
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