Artist Peter Harrington brings an abstract touch to buildings and nature - Albuquerque Journal

Artist Peter Harrington brings an abstract touch to buildings and nature

“Butterfly Temple,” Peter Harrington, 2020, oil on canvas, 40×40 inches. (Courtesy of Ellsworth Gallery)
Peter Harrington

Nature can sometimes be its own temple.

Artist and longtime Zen practitioner Peter Harrington creates a confluence of imagery combining the ephemeral with the spiritual.

Cars glide beneath moth wings. Trees transform into pagodas. Accordions turn into temples.

Born in Cambridge, England, Harrington lived in the Baltimore area before moving to Pittsburgh, Indiana, Rhode Island, back to Baltimore, where he worked as a nurse for 10 years, and eventually New Mexico 12 years ago. He lives in Jemez Springs and has been showing his work at Santa Fe’s Ellsworth Gallery for three years.

“I felt the need to be where mountains were,” he said.

His aesthetic emerged while studying under David Schirm at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in the 1970s. He felt drawn to both Hindu and Buddhist cultures.

“Oberon,” Peter Harrington, 2019, oil on canvas, 60×36 inches. (Courtesy of Ellsworth Gallery)

He says his pathway opened up 25 years ago. He describes his style as “representationalism with an abstract sense.”

“When I look at a house, I also look at it as an abstract form,” he explained. “If you take realism too far, you lose some of that abstract strength.”

Much of his inspiration came from the avant-garde Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, whose work he saw in Pittsburgh. Archipenko applied Cubism to the human figure.

“I was really moved by how he put geometric and organic forms together in a way that they seemed to belong together,” he said. “It stuck with me for the rest of my life.”

“Transient Floral Pagoda (2),” Peter Harrington, 2020, oil on canvas, 36×36 inches. (Courtesy of Ellsworth Gallery)

He also fell under the spell of the Chicago Imagists, a group of representational artists associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960s. Their work was known for grotesquerie, Surrealism and indifference to New York trends. Harrington was particularly struck by the work of Roger Brown for his distinctive painting style and shrewd social commentary. Drawn to Lionel train sets, he painted them with silhouettes in their windows.

“If you look at his paintings, you might see a similarity to my paintings because I was very influenced by him,” he said. “There’s a primitive, humorous quality about his work.”

Harrington attached butterfly wings to a playing card in “Butterfly Temple,” a 2020 oil on canvas. He conjured the concept while on a Zen retreat, imagining butterfly wings instead of a pagoda roof.

“Transient Floral Pagoda (2),” 2020, oil on canvas, reveals a flower-bedecked tree or pagoda sprouting from the roof of a car.

“In my past I was drawn to Hindu and Buddhist altars and their symmetry,” he said. “I often use a car; it’s symmetrical.”

In “Pearls of Wisdom,” 2020, oil on canvas, a spray of pearls cascades atop a dark island.

“Pearls of Wisdom,” Peter Harrington, 2020, oil on canvas, 36×36 inches. (Courtesy of Ellsworth Gallery)

“I wanted to combine an Islamic-Moorish; the Islamic architecture of Spain and Africa,” he said. “I made this little statue with these little pearls around it. I was thinking, ‘Where does wisdom come from?’ It comes from the sky.”

He finds the results almost funereal.

“I guess I was considering our mortality.”

His paintings seem to suggest that temples, pagodas and other buildings related to the Eastern religious tradition are not the only places afforded to worship, sanctuary and spirituality.

Harrington lists his elementary education as “red dirt roads, mountain streams and pine trees.”

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