For over two decades, Hilary Harkness has created paintings that are executed with a meticulous attention to detail and invite hours of contemplation. Imbued with humor and social commentary, her elaborate cast of characters and the intricate worlds they inhabit are reminiscent of period pieces, informed by both history and imagination. Throughout all these years, Harkness has maintained a remarkable commitment to the human form, even during times when it was considered “unpopular” in the art world. While there has recently been an increased interest in queer figurative painting, many queer women artists continue to be overlooked in art-historical discourse and art writing on this topic. After meeting Harkness in the queer utopia that is Fire Island last summer, I figured (pun intended) that this would be the perfect time to finally sit down for a conversation and learn more about her practice.
—Ksenia M. Soboleva
Ksenia M. Soboleva
Your work is informed by both your imagination and extensive historical research. Which tends to come first, or how do these interact?
There’s a constant interplay between making art, living my life, being curious, and conducting research. For example, the kernel of inspiration for my painting Experienced People Needed (2018) came nine years earlier when I was working on Nervous in the Service (2009). The latter painting includes Peggy Guggenheim’s set of amoeba-like chairs designed by Frederick Kiesler for her gallery Art of This Century. Those chairs led me to cast a wide net that included learning more about Jackson Pollock’s debut show at Guggenheim’s gallery. I found out more about his drinking and the two years that his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, stopped painting her own work. In speaking to Guggenheim’s granddaughter, I learned that Peggy “didn’t think much of” Krasner. And so I had found my narrative hook: here were two strong women at odds in close quarters. That’s when the actual research began. There were no installation shots of Pollock’s show, and the photos that I could find of the gallery’s permanent collection were mostly close-ups, so I “built” the gallery from scratch off of floor plans and filled it with Pollock, Krasner—who now bears a striking resemblance to my wife, Ara, who models for me sometimes—and Guggenheim, who’s making a deal on a Salvador Dali lobster telephone while stitching up her daughter Pegeen’s dress—and, yes, those are Meret Oppenheim gloves. I threw in some actual artworks from Guggenheim’s collection alongside artworks and artists of the time, such as Jacob Lawrence and Bill Traylor, as well as some Tom of Finland–inspired art handlers.
What has your research been like for the Arabella Freeman series, currently on view in your solo exhibition at PPOW, particularly in relation to race and class?
I’m painting these works as a public love letter to my wife, Ara. She’s from an upper-middle-class Black family that has lived in and around New York City, and I grew up in the Midwest in a neighborhood that was a mix of working-class and lower-middle-class people. Our immediate families have a lot in common, but when we’re out in the world, I can see how differently Ara experiences the intersection of race and class. She is often underestimated or overlooked; when you layer on the additional fact that we are a lesbian, interracial couple, it gets really interesting.
The Arabella Freeman series started when I was painting a copy of Winslow Homer’s Prisoners from the Front (1866) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018, and I changed the race of one Union soldier from white to Black. He looked proud, healthy, and in control of his life, unlike many of the other depictions of Black figures in the room. I started writing a story to tell how that soldier had gotten there and how that painting could have come to exist in 1866. “Arabella,” the soldier’s older sister, is named after my wife.
But it wasn’t that easy to construct a fictional wealthy, free, Black family living in Virginia in nineteenth-century America. My research into the history and progression of racist ideas and laws shaped nearly every aspect of the story, and because they shifted so frequently as time passed, they often negated what I had already imagined. In addition to the horrors of slavery, white people made life so hard—legally, financially, and culturally—for free Black people. For instance, Virginia passed a law in 1806 that required newly freed people to leave the state within a year and a day. Shortly thereafter, thirteen nearby states passed laws making it nearly impossible for these individuals to settle there as well. The burdens put on free Black people were so varied, diabolical, and nuanced that it’s hard to depict them, especially visually.
When I first saw your work, I was instantly reminded of Dutch genre painting and artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder as well as Hieronymus Bosch. Have these been a source of inspiration for you at all? And related to that, what role does fantasy, or the fantastical, play in your work?
Bosch and Bruegel, and the tension between their differences, particularly caught my attention in my early days of painting. I’ve always enjoyed Bruegel more because of his playful schematizing and understatement of what he’s actually up to. He pokes at others from a removed distance, though; and my sense is that Bosch has more of a mea culpa included in his skewering of human foibles. This quality, in addition to many paintings by Bosch being intended for private viewing and contemplation by whomever commissioned him, makes me feel closer to Bruegel in the ways that my images operate. I’m interested in making paintings that can hold their own, that have their own context if not an entire universe. Without the freedom of imagination to push and pull through reality and a willingness to introduce humor, sly as it may be, it would be an oppressive project.
I find it interesting that your characters don’t always exactly resemble the people they reference. It makes me think of that experience many of us are surely familiar with when you dream about someone and they appear as an entirely different person, but you still know who they are. I’m curious what your relationship is to mimesis?
I would describe my approach as “history, with some revisions.” This not only speaks to the way I work from painting to painting, but also my larger relationship to painting historic events that sometimes include references to real people. The meaning of my work would be different if I painted with the rules of a realist. Instead, there is no “one” model for any recurring character in my paintings, whether it’s Gertrude Stein or Arabella Freeman. I take my time reinventing characters, and all that goes into depicting them in order to suit the story happening within each painting.
In one of the previous questions you touched upon your lesbian identity, yet I’ve noticed that queerness is not often addressed in existing writings on your work. To me, however, the work reads as abundantly queer—both in form and content. What are the ways in which you think your queer identity manifests itself in your work?
I have been interested in what it means to be a woman since I was forced to sit at the boys’ table in kindergarten. I looked across the room at the little girls with their brightly colored dresses and long hair, and couldn’t identify. I wore boyish clothes, including a football jersey, and I had a short, pageboy haircut. My drawings in kindergarten included all-black drawings where I covered sheets of paper with layers of heavy-handed crayon. I think that those expressions of being “in exile at the boys’ table” were my first queer artworks. In my cross-section paintings, the female-appearing characters are “generic female” meant to represent all genders. Large breasts are about virility, and virility is for everyone. Later works of mine include representations of Alice B. Toklas and Stein, who are queer icons. And then there’s the gender-queer General Barlow in the Arabella Freeman series. These latter works provide additional visual evidence of queer lives, semi-real and very imagined. When I was growing up, it was very hard to find lesbians—in art and in real life—and so I hope that my works create a greater sense of belonging for folks across the spectrum.
I can identify with that. I was bullied for looking like a boy in kindergarten and middle school; people often confused me for a boy, and I would be grouped with boys by accident. In hindsight, I was already playing with gender norms when I was five years old!
You’ve mentioned in an earlier conversation we’ve had that painting is only one part of your extensive world-building when you’re working on a project, and that you also do a lot of novel-length writing. How do you navigate all these different parts, and do you imagine ever publishing a novel?
I’m still waiting for people to catch up with my paintings. At the moment, there’s more pleasure to be had writing for private enjoyment!
Hilary Harkness: Prisoners from the Front is on view at PPOW in New York City until November 11.