Art Beat // Between Heaven and Earth

Deciphering Nicholas Harper’s haunting portraits

Walk across the creaking wood floors of Nicholas Harpers’ Rogue Buddha Gallery in Northeast and you’ll find, behind a door in the back, a cluttered office where Harper does most of his painting.

In the winter, Harper keeps warm with a natural gas-fired heater about the size of a mini-refrigerator that hangs from the office’s ceiling. On a recent visit, the heater’s blue flames glinted off a small, unfinished canvas covered in gold leaf.

The painting was one of Harper’s attempts to incorporate the symbolism and techniques of religious iconography into his paintings, the results of which can be seen at Gallery 360 through mid-February. An artist known for his richly symbolic works, he is expanding his visual lexicon.

For some time now, Harper has been painting portraits of women with grotesquely long necks, and these have become his best-known, most recognizable work. They are often described as “haunting,” a word that does something to relate the marriage of Harper’s classical oil painting technique and the bizarre imagery of often quite beautiful heads just barely attached to grossly distorted bodies.

Are the heads floating away, like helium balloons? Or are their heavy bodies falling back to earth, stretching the necks like rubber?

For Harper, the paintings are a visual manifestation of a metaphysical struggle: the internal conflict between each person’s worldly desires (gnarly, disembodied hands) and divine or spiritual purpose (perfectly shaped, floating heads). And once you know that, it’s no surprise Harper enrolled in a weeklong course in the meaning and method of religious icons.

Icons developed their own intricate systems of meaning over the centuries, a symbology that weighted each brushstroke with religious significance. Everything from the colors the painters chose to the placement of the figures had a meaning that, in a largely illiterate early Christian church, could be “read” by believers.

Now, some of those symbols — particularly the glowing, gold-leaf haloes — are finding their way into Harper’s work, and in surprising places. One halo surrounds a youthful face identified in faux-Cyrillic letters as “Bella Donna,” a portrait Harper said was inspired by a rather infamous porn actress.

Asked about that piece, Harper mentioned another portrait he painted several years ago of Sirhan Sirhan, the man convicted of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, and described his belief in the capacity for both good and evil in every person. His is a spiritual worldview shaped by a Catholic upbringing and an adulthood spent studying Buddhism and ancient religions and practicing Qigong, a form of meditation.

“No matter what anybody has done, we all have that same nature, we all have that divine potential,” he said.

That spiritual truth-seeking animates Harper’s paintings, and it saves them from a too-easy labeling as “goth,” a term he cringes at. His paintings can be dark, yes, but the gloom also highlights his tremendous skill at painting glowing, pearlescent skin — which may be where Harper’s technique reaches its finest expression.

That contrast, he added, brings a visual tension to his paintings that reinforces the spiritual conflict underlying his work. And any decent icon painter would get that.

Go see it
“La Femme Noire” runs through Feb. 26 at Gallery 360, 3011 W. 50th St. 925-2400.