|“If the hanging scroll signifies a state
of balance, a state almost of tension
between man and nature or a man and his dream,
then my starlings signify the tremendous
delicacy of life and the tenuousness of attachment.
. . .for me, everything hangs in the balance,
in the movement of those birds. . .”
When poet Gerald Stern wrote those lines about a Chinese scroll he saw exhibited at Princeton, he must have been having the same kind of intense response to art that I have in front of Marvin Harden’s paintings. Harden’s exquisite images stimulate desire even as they whisper of melancholy. I am drawn to them, yet saddened by them. Seeing so many of them, as viewers are able to do at this retrospective exhibition, reveals how the artist both celebrates the beauty of existence and mourns its ephemerality.
The format of Harden’s works often resembles hanging scrolls: it has evolved from vertical panels marked by thin bars that recall Barnett Newman’s “zips,” to tiny sheets of textured paper suspended vertically inside carved wooden frames. Like the unknown Chinese artist of the scroll, Harden creates images that hover in “a state of balance, a state almost of tension between man and nature or a man and his dream” and, also like the Chinese artist, he often uses those most fragile of nature’s creatures--tiny birds--to evoke such a state.
Perhaps it is because they are liminal creatures--because they travel between the realm of the earth and the realm of the sky--that birds have had such powerful symbolic resonance. The feathers and wings of these diminutive creatures are used to represent beings who travel from heaven to earth in Sumerian, Assyrian, Hindu and Aztec imagery--to name but a few. Christians use the entire bird to represent the Holy Ghost, the earthly incarnation of God Himself. And birds stand for peace in many societies.
So Harden’s choice of birds as a recurring image in his delicately wrought paintings is a choice laden with history, symbology and transcendence. Not all paintings of birds could evoke and then sustain such iconographical layering. But the way Harden paints his birds, their fragility, their tenuousness, their delicacy and above all, their beauty, makes them worthy heralds of so much meaning.
\Harden does not limit his pictorial vocabulary to birds. He also paints flowers--usually single stems floating over textured, earthy backgrounds--and horses and cows. And he paints landscapes: misty hills, smoky clouds, shimmering trees.
\Then Harden makes sure we “see” his work in all its poetic significance. He titles the paintings with poetic fragments he authors, literary passages as beautiful, melancholy, and tenuous as the images themselves. Harden writes, “to transmute discreetly (a process required) into something rich and strange; future and past as in a very flash. . .” He writes, “songs sung (with grace) of an inwardness place, in a stillness--sweet. in morning, mourning--in evening, even.” He writes, “unfurled in colored pieces, sublime--a shimmer on my mind.”
“dear josine,” 1995, mixed media
on paper, 6 11/16 x 3 1/2".
“unfurled in colored pieces, sublime--a
shimmer on my mind,” 2000, oil on
wood panel, 17 3/4 x 11 1/16".
“unfurled in colored pieces, sublime--
a shimmer on my mind," 1998, mixed
media on canvas, 72 x 36".
“tail aloft, all sass and dare, his canter,
like a rocking chair--I loved the way he went,"
2004, oil on wood panel, 17 3/4 x 11".
“untitled," 1965, pencil on
paper, 22 1/4 x 18 1/8".