In Paul Klee’s famous axiom, drawing is defined as ‘taking a line for a walk’. If this is the case, then Melinda Harper is a dedicated walker. A dazzling retrospective, ‘Colour Sensation: The Works of Melinda Harper’ – spanning 30 years of her paintings and painted objects, drawings, collages, screenprints, embroideries and photographs – reveals an artist obsessed with lines: whole fields of her paintings are comprised of them. Vertically abutted, they compress colours into meshes of gorgeous polychrome. Their rectilinearity is frequently skewed as the matrix of stripes seems to reach some invisible obstruction before veering in another direction. The resulting compositions are formed of internal torsions; long bands of marching colour that are suddenly kinked or arrested before continuing their new trajectory. In Harper’s paintings lines beget and multiply.
Op art is the obvious precedent here – in particular, the paintings of Bridget Riley. Yet Harper’s lines have none of the finesse and complementary colours so deliberately arranged by Riley; they don’t vibrate in an optically illusory way so much as radiate an almost palpable heat. Harper’s preference for hot, glowing colours – tangerine, lime, cadmium red, coral pink, magenta, shot through with deeper hues of viridian or purple – imbue her paintings with a torrid quality: they’re like chromatic incendiary bombs. They also eschew Riley’s exactitude: Harper’s paintwork is less rarefied. Forming her lines through the application of masking tape, her method allows paint to occasionally bleed beneath the tape’s edge, making for stripes that are smudged and imperfect, contributing to a sense of her paintings as robust and cavalier.
Like many Australian artists of her generation, such as Rose Nolan and Kerrie Poliness, who were associated with Store 5, the Melbourne artist-run initiative of the 1980s, Harper’s painting is influenced by the early-20th-century Russian avant-garde, most obviously Kazimir Malevich. But, more profoundly, the vernacular of constructivist artists and designers Varvara Stepanova and Lyubov Popova has left an indelible imprint on Harper’s sensibility. Dwarfed by their better-known male peers, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin, it nonetheless was these two women who succeeded in constructivism’s revolutionary objective of aligning artistic activity with industry. When the First State Cotton Printing Factory produced their pioneering geometric designs as bolts of textiles in 1923–24, they were the only constructivists to see their works translated into manufactured objects – a dream which eluded both Rodchenko and Tatlin. The contemporaneous Russian émigré artist Sonia Delaunay, who had decamped to Spain a few years earlier, also saw her designs transformed into wearable items – although hers were unashamedly high-end fashion.
This embroiled history of constructivism and textile design haunts the rhythms of Harper’s paintings. It also inspired the collaboration between Harper and Poliness in the 1990s, when each artist produced abstract designs silk-screened onto fabric to be worn as scarves, which are included in the Heide exhibition. The textile thematic is further developed through a suite of embroideries: a series of almost 50 small-scale works Harper made between 2007–15 in which the artist’s attraction to the languages of textiles and abstraction converge. The refinement abjured in her painting technique resurfaces here; her obvious flair for dynamic compositions and chromatic harmonies finds a different register of precisely stitched patterns and lines.
The syncopations and rhythms in all of Harper’s works have a restlessness that also recalls Piet Mondrian’s iconic jazz-themed grids. Harper’s abstractions, however, are more buoyant. Formed of brigades of circles and stripes that endlessly advance, collide and detour, her striped pictorial world is irrepressibly energetic. The historian Michel Pastoureau examined the stripe’s inherently renegade nature in his study The Devil’s Cloth (2001). In the Middle Ages, those who wore stripes were society’s outcasts: criminals, prostitutes, apostates and madmen. Stripes represented disloyalty and heresy and were considered to be an insignia of the devil; the injunction to wear striped clothing indicated a socially illegitimate status. While such medieval means of social classification may be outmoded in the contemporary world, the stripe nonetheless continues to suggest a certain transgressive vitalism – something that Harper seems confidently to intuit.