Why Henrietta Harris makes beautiful portraits - then defaces them

Face off

Drawn to darkness, Auckland artist Henrietta Harris creates detailed oil portraits of people she knows – then disfigures their faces with pink paint in her latest solo show at Melanie Roger Gallery.

I Gave You All the Clues is Auckland-based artist Henrietta Harris’s first solo show in New Zealand since 2012, though you’ve probably seen her work since then. The 33-year-old has kept busy participating in group exhibitions, creating album artwork for talented New Zealand musicians, and her painting made a cameo on a t-shirt on a recent Apple Watch advertisement.

Her work, muted, youthful, and crafted with precision, comes with an element of surprise – her paintings are defaced with strokes of messy paint. She experiments with oil paint, lashing loud, pink brushstrokes across the expressions of her delicate subjects; a surreal conflict left unanswered for audiences to interpret.

Paperboy visited Harris’s studio space on Queen Street ahead of opening night at Melanie Roger Gallery. The large exhibition portraits sat across the small room at varying stages of completion, pre-pinked. Weary from two months of intensive work, Harris spoke about painting with oils, deconstructing portraiture, and Trump cutting arts funding in America.

James Manning: Who are the subjects of this new series, I Gave You All the Clues?

Henrietta Harris: They are all people I know. Some I know from the internet and the rest are my friends. One is Leilani Momoisea, who’s married to David Dallas and works at Radio New Zealand. Another is my friend Victoria, she’s from here but she lives in London, so I shot her in London.

As with your previous pieces, they look young and stoic.

I don’t set out to paint young people but I smooth everything out so much that I think they look young. I guess my portraitures are always quite gloomy. Obviously, I’m covering up the faces or I distort them or leave out the face. It’s all just experimenting with that style a little bit more. It’s just what I’m drawn to… darkness [laughs].

You’ve used watercolour and pen to astonishing effect in the past. Has painting with oil influenced your artwork differently?

I think the paintings still have the same ‘look’, but it’s opened lots of ideas due to the nature of the paint. It’s been great to explore the softness oils can achieve with ease, as well as being able to obscure and cover up parts of paintings, and most importantly, texture.

How does painting with oil compare to drawing with a pen?

The ballpoint pen drawings were so hard on the body because you had to push down really hard and I got really bad RSI and my back hurt all the time. That pen series was just drawing every single line, whereas this is much looser. The hair is just two layers, one dark and one highlight.

Can you delve into the title – I Gave You All the Clues – a little bit?

I like to stay slightly enigmatic with everything I do, but it’s partially because people query the pink paint so much, even though I feel like I’ve always made work like this. I find it funny that some people absolutely love my hair drawings with missing faces but react negatively to these paintings where I’ve covered up the faces. They all explore similar themes to me. It’s also partially because I’m constantly listening to murder mysteries while I work. 

Was there anything you sought to achieve in this series that you hadn’t before? For example, colour scheme, texture, tone?

The main thing has been becoming as competent with oil paint as I am with watercolour. The process of painting these portraits to the best of my ability then partially covering them with paint is really interesting to me, and isn’t something I could do with watercolour. I don’t think my tones and colours ever really change too much; I always seem to be drawn to greys and blues and pinks. I think that’s why the pink works so well, because it has no browns making it dull.

Who or what do you look to for inspiration?

Lontalius [singer, songwriter and producer] is very inspiring to me. I did the cover art for his debut album I’ll Forget 17, which is a masterpiece. He’s currently working on his follow-up album in LA. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but we mainly just talk about our mutual admiration for Harry Styles.

You’ve also done album artwork for Grayson Gilmour and Yumi Zouma. I can see you’re working on the artwork for Chelsea Jade’s debut album here [in the studio] too, which is very exciting. Are there certain things you must consider, as you switch between mediums [gallery paintings and album covers]? Obviously with albums, this has to look like her because it’s selling her music. These paintings don’t have to quite as much because one, they get covered up and two, you don’t need to know who they are. I don’t have to follow the reference quite as closely. 

You’re with Miami’s Robert Fontaine Gallery too. Can you comment on the changes the arts have seen in America, since Trump took the White House?

Absolutely, it’s crazy. He cut a lot of arts funding because, of course he did. But also, people are just scared and buying art by emerging artists isn’t anyone’s top priority right now. It was first noticeable in the months before the election and now it’s just wild. People are still buying Andy Warhol prints but the up-and-coming artist scene is struggling.

Who are some exciting New Zealand artists we should keep an eye on?

My friend Elliot Collins does interesting stuff, he’s with Tim Melville [Gallery]. I also really like this young illustrator called Chippy, he does cool doodles with weird animals. Henry Christian-Slane can do everything and was recently a finalist in the BP Portrait Awards in London at the National Portrait Gallery, and won the Young Artist Award. He’s a genius. 

What will surprise audiences about this exhibition? I guess a lot of people have only seen my work online, so it would be nice to see the detail and the texture in real life. It will be a lot more striking, and I think the size will surprise people.

Experimenting with portraiture has been a key theme throughout your work for some time. What is it that attracts you to deconstructing people?

It started years ago with me trying to combine abstraction and figurative themes in my work. I just flicked through a sketchbook from about 10 years ago, which had drawings in it very similar to the Fixed It [series] pieces that I’d forgotten about! I’m not sure what attracts me to it aside from trying to do things differently. And it looks cool as. 


‘I Gave You All the Clues’, is on until Sat 4 Nov at Melanie Roger Gallery, 444 Karangahape Rd