SIOUX CITY – Al Harris-Fernandez has always painted in his spare time. But, since his retirement from the Sioux City Art Center in January 2020, he paints almost non-stop.
Harris-Fernandez, who was executive director of the Art Center for 18 years, likens his paintings to newspaper pages. The works of art, which combine lines, stripes, lighter colors mixed with darker colors, solids of paint and “thick and juicy” paints, reflect his thinking at the time and what he did. was trying to accomplish.
“At the end of the day what you have are layers of previous paints, new paints, drawings, thick paint on washes, on glazes,” Harris-Fernandez explained in a soft voice, then that he stood away from his painting “December 5. 2020” in the vast concrete gallery on the third floor of the Art Center. “I also see them as possible landscapes, but they’re mental landscapes in a sense that you can walk into them and see different spatial relationships.”
A slight smile swept across Harris-Fernandez’s face as he described his “huge inventory” of personal artwork, which occupies sections of his home. Today, around 80 of these works are on display at the Art Center through June 9, while Harris-Fernandez returns to the Art Center in a different title – exhibiting artist. “Al Harris-Fernandez: Abstracted,” features dozens of his paintings, most of which were created within the past five years, as well as a group of sculptures from the mid-1980s.
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“Oh, it’s wonderful! Very exciting, very rewarding to be able to share this side of me with the community,” said Harris-Fernandez, who had never exhibited his work on such a scale before.
In 2015, Harris-Fernandez’s wife bought him a set of colored markers, which ultimately inspired him to create two oil paintings, which he called “Structure # 1, 2015” and “Structure # 2, 2015 “.
Harris-Fernandez drew a shape on a piece of paper with a marker, then drew another with a different color. Very soon he said that the geometric patterns he was producing were starting to look “really interesting”.
“I started playing with this idea more and more, and spinning the canvases over and over again,” he said.
Harris-Fernandez always has several paintings at a time in his studio, located at the back of his house. If a painting looks “right,” he leaves it alone and chooses another to work on.
Later he returns to this painting. He can make changes to it or continue to leave it as is until someone buys it. He admitted that he had cut out a picture with a knife on several occasions because he “couldn’t take it anymore”. Recently, Harris-Fernandez released a painting he did several years ago and started creating more shapes on the canvas.
“I always try to do something that I find more interesting and that I will let exist,” he said.
Harris-Fernandez is repeatedly drawn to certain art museums by the same paintings. He puts on his reading glasses and moves closer to the canvas, in order to capture each color, swirl and glaze on the surface. He wants his own works to grab his attention and hold him back.
“Each time you check, ‘Is it always this interesting? “A big painting is something that really keeps your interest and you can always go back and see something different or have it keep grabbing you and making you look at it,” he said.
Harris-Fernandez begins an abstract painting by making a few marks on a blank canvas. Then he turns the canvas sideways and makes other marks, repeating this process on all four sides.
“Then I start painting in that process,” said Harris-Fernandez, who worked the same way while creating sculptures in senior school. These wooden sculptures turned into bronze casts included in the exhibition.
Through these stages, Harris-Fernandez hopes to discover new things. Upon entering, he said he had no preconceptions of what he was going to paint.
“This way I react to the changes that occur during the process,” he said. “At some point I decide it’s the bottom and put it out into the world.”
Harris-Fernandez is a fan of contemporary modern artists from 1910 to the present day. He particularly admires the work of the Canadian-American painter Philip Guston, who is best known for his caricature-like paintings. The tiny dots found in some of Harris-Fernandez’s paintings, which he says involve nail heads or screws, are a nod to Guston.
“At one point he decided everything was getting too serious and he wanted to change what he was doing,” Harris-Fernandez said of Guston, who abandoned abstract expressionism and spearheaded the neo-expressionism in painting. “I kind of had the same feeling, where I don’t like it to be so pure. I want it to be a little more frivolous, a little more cartoonish.”
Harris-Fernandez’s works have not always been strictly abstract in style. In order to make a living as a painter, he took to painting everything from oil well platforms and landscapes to portraits and horses.
After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, Harris-Fernandez needed the money to purchase art supplies. He approached a potential patron and asked the man if he could paint a portrait of him. The man obeys.
“He showed his portrait to someone else and they ordered me. All of a sudden it took off,” said Harris-Fernandez, who went on to get his Master of Arts at the University of State of New Mexico and her Masters of Fine Arts. from Austin State University.
For about a decade, Harris-Fernandez created representational works based on photographs, before entering the field of art administration in 1984.
Harris-Fernandez was director of a nonprofit art gallery in El Paso, now known as the Bridge Center for Contemporary Art. His career took him to the University of Texas at Arlington, where he was director of the Center for Research and Contemporary Art; the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York, where he directed a museum gallery program; and, finally, to Sioux City in 2002 to hold the position of Executive Director of the Art Center.
“All the while I was making art and showing it in different places,” he said. “After leaving New York City, I came to this part of the country to take a position at the Art Center, where I decided not to show my work due to perceived conflicts of interest.”
During his last years as head of the Art Center, Harris-Fernandez’s work was exhibited in Omaha and in university galleries.
“When I retired from the Sioux City Art Center, they put me on a show. It’s the result of that,” he said of “Abstracted”.
Harris-Fernandez said he hopes members of the public approach his exhibition with the idea that they don’t have to see anything specific in his work.
“I’m the first viewer. I organize a visual experience for myself. When I get to a point where I find it interesting, I let it go,” he said. “I think people are kind of under the idea that they’re supposed to see something in a painting, and that’s absolutely the furthest thing from my idea. You should see what you see.”