Cat Art: on Michael Harrison

Michael Harrison, Venus Trine Pluto, 2001.

Pavement, April/May 2001 (Issue 46, page 26)


An inherently melancholy mood pervades Michael Harrison’s latest exhibition I’ve Got This Friend. This feeling is captured by peculiar personifications of Harrison’s pet subject: the cat.

Harrison’s cats are an intriguing continuation of his interest in the mysterious nature of attraction. The formerly female inhabitants of his watery acrylics have been superseded by silhouettes of feline figures. Frequently coupled lip to lip as though kissing or in perplexing threesomes, his compositions of cats represent troubled romantic relationships. He describes the cat as “beautiful and cruel” an equally fitting summary of the nature of most love affairs.

Harrison’s cats appear solely in profile. Their individual features are indistinct and they exist in shades of grey. Although he has seldom portrayed a lone cat, this exhibition imparts a feeling of isolation. An ineffable problem arises from the core of his combination of feline protagonists, stemming from cats reputation as a solitary animal. Renowned for its fickle affections, the cat has become an enduring symbol of the enigmatic, most famously exemplified by the confounding Chesire Cat and its disappearing smile.

For Harrison, the inherently inscrutable disposition of the cat seems to symbolise the bewildering nature of sexual attraction. Wistful handwritten lines occasionally accompany his cats: “I like you, I don’t know why I like you.” The texture of his work is characteristically wishy-washy, complementing his unfathomable subject matter.

Harrison’s almost quavering line drawings create a sense of vulnerability. At first glance, his works appear humble and fragile, presented on A4 sheets of paper. Yet they contain a surprisingly raw emotional intensity. The viewer is privy to the innermost thoughts of the cats. We are able to ‘read their minds.’

Harrison contains the lone silhouette of a weeping cat inside the profile of a larger feline figure, creating a cryptic code of intimacy between his love-lorn characters and the art-going audience. Here, Harrison’s intentionally naive yet emotive style reminds me of Judith Kerr’s children’s classic Mog the Forgetful Cat. Kerr’s book presents Mog thinking or dreaming in pictures, creating an instant empathy with Mog’s child-like interior world. Harrison’s paintings have a strangely similar effect and there is the sense of a young heart at work in these images.

The fragments of text Harrison uses are simplistic and frequently imperative in a manner perversely akin to children’s literature. Harrison writes: “I want you for me,” as Mog thinks, “I want my house, I want my people…” In adulthood, our romantic and sexual drives often assume a primal importance once occupied by childhood needs for food, family and shelter.

Harrison’s choice of a monochromatic colour scheme sets the melancholy tone of this exhibition. His paintings are in shades of smokey grey that complement the complexity of this elusive yet emotionally charged exhibition. The subtle washes of paint within his feline figures are quietly reminiscent of tear stains. In one corner of Harrison’s living room, I spy a Joy Division album. It is the sentiment implicit in the title of their pensive hit Love Will Tear Us Apart that emanates from his plaintive watercolours.