Tracey Sylvester Harris mixes the contemporary and the timeless in her large-scale paintings of female sunbathers, citing the bold, sunny light of Edward Hopper and dazzling flat colors of Richard Diebenkorn in a way that not only draws the viewer in closer, but also challenges the viewer to negotiate their gaze in the context of these female subjects. Tempering a sense of nostalgia with a modern approach to composition, Harris aims to remind the viewer that “our own lives are fleeting” and “[to relish] our time in the sun.” Close enough to entice without titillation yet distant enough to create pause, Harris’s women have a distinctly magnetic quality that is both predicated on the physical and the psychological.
Harris knew she was bound for an artistic career from an early age, saying, “I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I was an artist.” Raised by successful working artists, Harris observed that pursuing her passion for art and making a living were not mutually exclusive. Exposure to art galleries and museums further facilitated her interest and inspiration, as did poring over glossy art books at home and creating works of art for her school as a elementary student. After taking art classes through high school, she found a mentor in California painter and teacher Marian Stevens, who passed on her wisdom on “the figure, composition, and art in general.” Growing up in Las Vegas cemented her attraction to the bodies of water that feature in her paintings, attuning her to the personalities she finds and recreates in each pool, lake, and ocean.
Taking the beaches and water of her San Luis Obispo home as her setting, Harris paints women lying out on towels or swimming, capturing them in moments of repose and relaxation, using vintage photographs and snapshots as references. She adds a further element of mystery and intrigue by denying the viewer direct views of their faces, using creative cropping of the composition to encourage the gaze in unexpected directions, saying, “just think about it: we all love to stare at people, but if they look back at us, manners dictate that we turn away. With my paintings, we have permission to stare and wonder about them indefinitely.” Harris imbues her paintings with an intentional sense of timelessness, choosing to clothe her subjects in retro-inspired bathing suits that surround the figures with an atmosphere of stillness and permanence, as they will never be confined to just one moment in time, but will consistently register and resonate with the viewer. For Harris, the viewer is meant to both identify with the universal, unspecified female figures and stand outside of them as spectator, creating a dynamic dialogue between subject and object.
On what she hopes to impart upon her viewers with her paintings, Harris says: “I hope to evoke thoughtfulness in the viewer. I like my work to have an initial attraction, but then for the viewer to see or feel that there is more, to start asking questions about the central issues of human existence: desire and loss, impermanence, and beauty, and the many dimensions of our connections with other.”
Anonymous snapshots found at flea markets, yard sales, and on the internet provide the diving board for Tracey Sylvester Harris's transformation of black and white memories into alluring light and color. The paintings are colorful but bittersweet in their depiction of fleeting moments of summer—one of stylish red swimsuits, flowered white caps, and scarlet lipstick—captured almost a lifetime ago. Merging the past with the present, Harris states, "The exciting challenge is to keep the paintings relevant and current, even though the subjects come from another era. To avoid sentimentality, I keep the compositions bold and cropped, and the paintwork loose, drippy, and rough, even pushing some areas into abstraction…"
The Face of Love
The Face of Love stars Annette Bening, Ed Harris, Robin Williams and a surprising costar -15 paintings by Tracey Sylvester Harris (no relation to the actor). Director Arie Posin uses the paintings to illustrate the transformative power of love after devastating loss. After divorce, artist turned art teacher Tom Young (Ed Harris) meets and falls for a widow (Annette Bening) while teaching a class. The relationship inspires him pick up his brushes again and paint amazing, large format figure paintings, created in real life by California artist Tracey Sylvester Harris.
After receiving the call that her work was chosen for the movie and recovering from the initial shock, T. S. Harris says it made perfect sense to her. “I always pictured my alter ego in the studio as a serious bad ass. Ed Harris is brilliant casting in my mind!” she replied. Tom Denolf, the co-producer whose daunting task it was to find the artwork to match the character of Tom Young (Ed Harris), scoured hundreds of LA galleries in search of work that would meet the script criteria, namely that the paintings be figurative, large, painterly, reminiscent of Eric Fischl, but with a Southern California vibe. The artwork of T.S. Harris, found at Skidmore Contemporary Art in Bergamot Station, fit the bill. Hundreds of galleries, dozens of meetings, and three weeks later, T. S. Harris got the voice mail she still has on her machine, “You’re it! We’re looking forward to working with you!”
In her paintings, T.S. Harris presents a dazzling vision of California that merges the past with the present. In an ironic twist, two recurring themes are her love of water and her love of Hollywood. The series of paintings entitled Lost Holiday are inspired by found, black and white photos from the forties and fifties. The paintings transform long forgotten memories into vibrant light and color. Although bright, the paintings are bittersweet in their depictions of fleeting moments of summer captured almost a lifetime ago. In the Noir series, she experiments with imagery from films made in that same time period. These paintings depict women mostly as torsos, or cropped stills. Suspended in time, they have been captured smoking, waking, sleeping, and sitting in contemplation. With the context of their actions removed, the women become mysterious. Dressed in swimsuits or lingerie, they are alluring not for their bodies, but the secrets they hold. Looking closely at the paintings however, reveals her true theme- how precious and fleeting our moments in the sun are.
Lost Holiday Series
In Tracey Sylvester Harris's Lost Holiday series, her subjects are suspended in time at a beach, by a lake, or on their way to a summer destination. The paintings are colorful but bittersweet in their depictions of fleeting moments of leisure captured almost a lifetime ago.
In Harris’s words, "One day I was scanning the internet for reference photos of the beach. I happened upon an old black and white photo from the 30's or 40's of a lovely woman lounging in the sand as her young daughter plays close by. It was candid - a split second of her life. It was a beautiful too, with deep shadows and a great composition. Of course, I instantly wanted to paint it. But also, I was struck by my immediate identification with the woman, even though her afternoon at the beach was almost seventy years ago."
"That was the first of the Lost Holiday paintings and the beginning of my obsession with bridging the past and present. The exciting challenge is to keep the paintings relevant and current even thought the subjects come from another era. To avoid sentimentality, I keep the compositions bold and cropped, the paintwork loose, drippy and rough, even pushing some areas into abstraction."