Following the death of his sister, an avid reader of Mills & Boon, Peter Harris became aware whilst sorting through her books that there was a subtext of death present in a few of the titles. However, when he began scouring charity shops, he realised that many of the book titles could be seen to allude to death.
He saw how the title ‘Unguarded Moment’ might refer to AIDS, or ‘Dark Inheritance’ cancer. Ostensibly stories centred on a kind of naïve, romantic fantasy, Harris was struck by the fact that oblivion was never far away – turn ‘Forbidden Surrender’ on its head and suddenly it’s not about guilty passion anymore – it’s about suicide.
Harris started tearing the covers off old Mills & Boon novels and painting over small sections, leaving whole areas intact. Dark themes are drawn out with small interventions; the trick seems to be that death is all over these books, yet somehow we don’t see it; it’s the delicate act of painting an exquisite skull over the face of a young girl caught in the arms of a handsome cad that allows the morbidity to break through. Harris’s technique is meticulous, perfect, blending invisibly into the original illustration. Over and over again the same scenarios are repeated endlessly by an array of double-barrelled debutantes, nurses, spoilt princesses, air hostesses, needy secretaries – all are seduced by the indiscriminate embrace of Death – the ultimate bad boy lover.
Love, death and fantasy are brought together in a passionate embrace ( Eros and Thanatos). But Harris also splurges black paint over bits of the original image, reminding us that dying (as well as sex) is a messy business. A beautiful woman vomits a fountain of inky gunk; a plant explodes in a spiky-leaved torrent of oily nastiness; even a man’s hair cascades upwards into a volatile ectoplasmic quiff. An act of vandalism has taken place with these slicks of black paint, and real menace is in the air. “I was trying to be as sick and cruel as death,” says Harris flatly, perhaps remembering his sister again, “But that’s impossible.”
In this way, the work in this show is also a testament to Harris’s own grieving process – mourning his sister through his artistic practice. Stuck behind glass in in boxy, coffin-like frames, these painted-over book covers function as a reminder of our own mortality too, memento mori sticking two fingers up at our own short lives. When confronted by death, who doesn’t wonder when their own hour will come? In the same bleak but amused way that Hamlet talks to Yorrick’s skull, pondering the transient nature of existence, Harris reminds us that we are all on the way out. This is vanitas painting for the 21st century, but Holbein’s skull in the corner has flicked hair – a meditation on death for an ironic, post-modern world.
Swiss Cottage Gallery, London
24 January – 22 February 2009
Building, Dwelling, Thinking, Laura Bartlett Gallery, London
11 April – 24 May 2008