Review of Fiona Harman’s Re-Imagining the Display Home
By Lydia Trethewey
Harsh light bounces off flat facades and dissolves into the glittering surface of a swimming pool. Light refracts in odd ways, so that the perfectly manicured buildings are swallowed, inverted, spit back up to the surface. Every plane boasts a polished reflection – construction in water, water on construction – in an endless echo of smooth, flawless exterior.
The display home, subject of Fiona Harman’s paintings, is a little too perfect. The utter, empty stillness is disquieting, betraying a sense of menace in the familiar. A storm gathers in the periphery, or the light turns behind a cloud – beneath the surface, the works open up into a thinly concealed threat. The swimming pool lurks, a picture of luxury hinged with a depthless dread. Harman’s paintings are the promise of paradise, contaminated with reality.
The very term “display home” might be considered an oxymoron, insofar as a home is something lived in, felt and excreted through experiences of habitation, not simply the empty architectural space. A house built for display holds only the promise of future living, is absent of lived-in memory, and so sits uneasily as an advertisement for an unrealised purpose. The display home is like the cover of a glossy magazine – it’s flat, superficial and staged. From this pairing of homeliness and uninhabited emerges Harman’s investigation; across the multifaceted facades plays a tension between comfort and menace, familiarity and vacuity.
It is possible to draw a line connecting Harman’s paintings to the 1960s photobooks of Ed Ruscha; the hard-edged shadows of Some Los Angeles Apartments in which buildings are gutted of inhabitants, reduced to forms of flat concrete and baking tarmac; or their counterpart in Real Estate Opportunities, subjects that, like the display home, are yet-to-be-lived-in, occupying a strange space between the promise of something and the reality of emptiness. The city of L.A. itself starts to beg comparison with the Perth that rises through Harman’s display homes – sprawling repetitions on the wrong edge of their continents, sun-struck and spawning a continuous sense of vacancy or banality, a kind of light in which nothing is hidden or mysterious. Harman’s works are not so bare, not as insistently empty as some of Ruscha’s, and yet flatness as a quality of place is infused in the blank facades and the artificial image of the pool. In both Harman and Ruscha architectural spaces become a site to play out the tensions of a city; those between affluence and decay, possibility and disuse, promise and reality.
Of course the most obvious link to Ruscha would be Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass – the perfect image of a pool, azure, turquoise, enticing, but in which is concealed (perhaps) the threat of the broken glass, almost impossible to see against the blue. Harman’s swimming pools are not simply signifiers of pleasure or magazine-cover life – the tension between comfort and menace unfolds through the water, as something both inviting and disconcerting. We may want to dip our toes into the water, but still we hold back from the suffocating depths. A paradox of surface and depth occurs in the swimming pool, an unexpected pivot which echoes the display home itself – it is both artificial and inscrutable, shallow and bottomless. There may not be glass in Harman’s pools, but there is a subtle menace. The familiar suburban home sinks into repeating reflection; seduction is subducted into chlorine.
The twin ideas of promise and emptiness can be seen in Villa, with its dramatic front-on perspective bisecting the canvas. Two distinct images emerge from one, though they are caught in a sliding equivalence. On the upper part is deck chairs and light, a space which proffers an invitation to recline; the lower part dissolves in an obscure watery space that defied incursion. Yet this isn’t a simple duality in which one half is menacing and one comfortable; with continued viewing, the insistent emptiness of the upper half betrays a truer menace, a kind of resistance to living, and the water begins to hold promise, with the seriousness and complexion of reality, the sense of mystery that escapes brightly lit surfaces.
Something should perhaps be said about the waning “Australian Dream” – the promise of paradise unfolded through the display home itself. But then again, such associations seem to offer themselves up too readily, lead into less complex engagements with the work. The uniformity of spaces in Harman’s display homes are drained of life and experience – they’re no more a dream than a nightmare. The pervasive individualism of the “Australian Dream” finds itself at a loss here. There is a lack of cohesiveness and harmony to Australian suburban landscapes, which prompted Robin Boyd to complain that Australian cities were ‘messy’ in their clamour for individuality, resulting in an undefined heterogeneity or ‘Featurism.’ In Harman’s work, this heterogeneous dreaming is flattened and pushed into surfaces, an architectural conformity. She refers to Boyd and this incongruity in the title of the work New Featurism, with its perfect contours, distinctly un-Featurist in an important way. Hope and desire tarry with disconnection and insignificance, the outcome ambiguous. Individuality finds itself mired in conformity, consumed by a complication of surface and depth.
In Re-Imagining the Display Home Hockney’s splashed surfaces meets De Chirico’s foreboding light. It is perhaps not a coincidence that in one corner of the gallery, the works Marienbad and Xanadu almost begin to face each other, like an opening or closing hinge. Here is the idea of twinning renewed in a curatorial decision; Marienbad is the brighter, and stiller, eerie but inviting – Xanadu is the building storm, the menacing and threatening. Though the buildings depicted are different, they seem like two of the same, the suburban home which changes face or the promise that inverts itself. Something important is being said here about the nature of Perth’s suburbia; it is not simply negative, an indictment of superficiality, but a more nuanced probing of spaces that are lived in but empty, which couple connection with disconnectedness. Perth’s suburban spaces, manifest through the display home, are complex and eschew easy categorisation. Stereotype is left behind.
The display home re-images the lived in home, and Harman re-imagines the re-imaging. There is a degree of recursion which slides through Re-Imagining the Display Home, and a repetition of pairings; surface-depth, promise-reality, menace-comfort. Each reflects the other endlessly, giving a lingering impression that slides out of focus; the display home is traceless.