Matthew Harris: Sky without stars, 2024 | at The Commercial, Sydney


A progression from natural form to a constructed world. All the paintings are made of white ochre, charcoal and acrylic binder on hessian. Ochres and charcoal are probably the oldest and most stable pigments in the world. From ancient rock paintings to archaeological remnants of campfires, both signify someone was here in this place, at this point in time. Charcoal is essentially pure carbon. In this country, white ochre is often painted on the body for ceremony. Hessian is good for its strength and rough texture but also because when the English queen visited Shepparton in the 1950s, a big stretch of road was lined with a fence and covered in hessian so she wouldn’t have to see the Aboriginal houses. Mission clothes were sometimes made of hessian too.
The work always draws from the various cultures that went into making me. The recent work for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and The British Museum series are about a loss and lack of access to culture, depicting human remains and traditional objects buried in institutional storage. And following on from previous works full of stars, this show combines Scandinavian, Aboriginal, Celtic and Abrahamic traditions of navigating by stars. Among many other things, stars can tell you where you are, where you’re going, the time, the season. But there are no stars in these works. Ragnarok is a popular Old Norse apocalypse story in which a sky without stars signals you’ve lost your way and the end of the world. Sure feels that way sometimes. Different versions of these stories occur around the world and they all have interesting ideas about and uses for stone, I guess it’s something like ‘animism’.
The blobby grey and black paintings Yeddonba, I Know Alone and Just Us Two are forms taken straight from natural stone shelters and sites not far from where I was born, places important to various sides of my family in both the ancient and recent past. Mob lived among the rocks and the rocks were part of the family. Even my great-grandparents all the way from Denmark had a farm just up the road. There are still paintings on the rocks after all these years, they’ve been sitting there patiently this whole time. Now it’s a mostly forgotten tourist stop far off the highway. The wooden walkway has decayed and partially collapsed, most of the rocks are fenced off, but you can still squeeze through to get close. Up the top on a clear day you can see forever. I’ve never been there at night but I’m sure all the stars are there.
With A Warm Embrace is based on stuffed koalas my nanna made out of the coat she was wearing when she met my grandfather. The original koalas are an inseparable pair. Though probably designed to be toys they’ve always been too special to play with and sit together in a cabinet as relics, now in my mother's house. Aside from ourselves and a few other bits and pieces the koalas are all we have left of my grandparents, they both died when I was little. Nanna worked at the Wangaratta Woollen Mills most of her life so the koalas are all sewn up with wool from that factory, in a shade of grey the factory conveniently titled 'Koala'.
Exodus is a pretty generic looking road. It could be anywhere and I’m no good at realism or perspective, that’s not important. It’s the road out, it’s being displaced, a mass departure, it’s crossing the country or even the whole world and leaving the place you’ve always been. Cue On The Road Again by Willie Nelson, it’s time to move on. The Hume Highway as it’s now known began in the 1830s as the colonial frontier pushed deeper into the country, many of the towns along the highway were established to provide a ‘safe corridor’ for early settlers and their stock. First you build the road, then you build the town. If you build it, they will come.
Paperwork is all the useless documents governing our lives, thrown up in despair. The papers include but are not limited to: acts, orders, reports, laws, treaties, claims, constitutions, votes, licences, permits, leases, deeds, bonds, ID, birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, money, bills, taxes, fines, invoices, warnings, receipts, love letters, hate mail, email, kind regards, best wishes, yours sincerely, cheers, thank you, keep up the good work, take care, hope you’re well, have a great day. It’s raining admin, hallelujah, it’s raining admin.
Sky Without Stars is a departure from the mostly fluid shapes in the other works. On one hand it’s cross-hatching and weaving, on the other it’s a rigid white system dividing and restricting the black cells. The Big Smoke. A system, a city grid, a skyscraper, sprawl, farms, fences, prisons, graves, order and control. It’s also an abstract painting. An Agnes Martin work made me cry in the middle of Art Basel one time. On my tenth storey balcony in the middle of the city I get the sun, wind, rain, fog, thunder, lightning, earthquakes and the moon — but never the stars.

— Matthew Harris