Erol Scott Harris
“Erol Scott Harris is literally part of ‘PIEL 11.11’—he created the work by dipping his body in pigment then pressing his flesh against strips of vinyl and linoleum flooring, a process that included lowering himself repeatedly onto the painted surfaces via ropes and pulleys suspended from the ceiling of his studio,” I wrote when I first encountered Harris’ painting as part of Kavi Gupta’s group exhibition “SKIN + MASKS: Decolonizing Art Beyond the Politics of Visibility,” that contemplated painful history, memory and the racial underpinnings of our reality—past and present. I was intrigued.
His abstractions are characterized by a mystique—much like his presence. He has kind brown eyes that evoke a playfulness with a dash of a childlike innocence, unexpectedly chunky stackable rings adorn his fingers and his voice is soothing and reassuring—words are chosen wisely when he talks about his work. The mystique extends to his studio. I nest on a pile of fur pieces (throws, collars and tails) that make the chair underneath barely visible (Harris has been carefully collecting them) and I try to take it in. The space brings to mind an altar: a big window lets the sunset color in, flower bouquets hang upside down from the ceiling, incense is burning, art supplies are overabundant and artwork is everywhere including the entire floor. “I walk on everything all the time,” he says, inviting me to do the same.
Harris doesn’t abide by many rules, an ethos that started early on: “My mom got me this Basquiat book from Barnes & Noble,” he says. “I had no idea who Basquiat was and I remember going into my room and trying to copy every single painting that Basquiat made. Which is weird, because how do you copy a Basquiat? Like, there’s no structure. But, it was fun to think like that. He really opened up my world. I’d never studied art in that way or even seen a Black artist before. It was very cool.” He had a revelation: “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can just create what I feel.’”
In high school—”some Wisconsin middle-of-nowhere Catholic school”—he met an art teacher who helped him develop his untamed, creative ways by opening up a whole new world: the studio. “There was so much stuff. It was insane,” he says, describing how he would turn old, gunky, goopy oils into treasure. “I would just keep digging.” Ever since, his work is centered around finding things that are free out there in the world. “The ecosystem of my practice has been heavily based on a gift economy. It’s like harvesting,” he says. This extends from pigments to flowers. “It’s what happened with the linoleum: I found it in my grandpa’s garage, you know.”
Harris takes a painting off the wall and hands it to me. “After a year at Columbia I didn’t think I was cut out for this.” Next stop? Working at a farm and living in his grandmother’s basement. “I did ‘Taproot’ that summer.” (“Taproot” is a small oil painting on linen that Harris made in 2014.). He describes taking a dandelion off of the grass and pinning it down, observing the little weed shrink, break down, decompose, becoming something else entirely. “That’s when I got inspired. The lines at the edges were like warping in the colors. It went from like lime green to dark browns and maroons.” And then it hit him: “Here I am, a man trying to force my will in nature. I felt so bad.” Right then and there he decided he was going to give the dandelion new life. “I wanted to make this the flower of all flowers; the organic of organics,” he says. “I remember, I would paint all day. This was the first oil painting I really focused on.”
“It’s rather structured compared to other works—look at those geometrical elements,” I think out loud. The tones bleed off one another. “You’ll see the colors are very, very complex,” says Harris, explaining that during the process he would hate to look down at his palette. “I would mix straight on canvas, let the color blend and that’s what it is.” Followed by two more paintings about the same size, “Taproot” marked a new beginning for Harris. “I felt it. I was like: ‘Okay, I’m going somewhere. I can do this.’ But it takes a complete lack of ego,” he says. That was his cue to leave the farm and return to Chicago.
True to his self-proclaimed lack of structure, he’s urging me to change my perspective. “I’m still always flipping it, rotating it,” he says. “I never know which way it would have to go.” The more you flip it, the deeper you get into the work. He’s right. At its center, “Taproot” has a palpable vibrancy—it’s like you’re looking into Harris’ soul. “I think that’s what this is all about,” he says. “I realized that instead of making decisions of taste and aesthetics, I just wanted to be very direct. I didn’t want to look at the color—I just wanted to be the color.” Expanding from the canvas to the studio floors and even walls was liberating. “I can be purple for the day just by putting purple on my body. I then have to wash it off and then tomorrow maybe I’m yellow. And sometimes I’m blue just because my palm accidentally went into the glob of blue. So then I’m like, ‘Oh, crap. Okay, I got to be blue today.’ And that’s alright.”
His process is orbital. “These three are very important—almost totemic to me,” he says. “I would feel very lost without them,” he says about the series that started it all. Heavy on autobiographical elements—migration, identity, belonging, labor, cultural transformation—creating art has always been a sort of home for lack of one in the traditional sense. “I grew up in many different homes in the Midwest,” says Harris, originally from Waukegan, Wisconsin. “There were trailers, two-flats, single-family homes, bedrooms, my grandmother’s basement,” he says. “After my parents’ divorce, it was me, my brother and my sister. I was the oldest. We didn’t really have much money but I always knew I was rich in love and family,” he says.
His work, full of color, layers and life, reflects that. It is right at the intersection of public and private that he is the most creative. Getting messy and muddy doesn’t scare him. His work is very much about feeling and when he becomes part of the canvas he’s in his element. “I feel the landscape occupies the body just as much as the body occupies the landscape,” he says, standing amid life-size linoleum pieces in all shapes and sizes. Another way to see it? “I often feel I’m a custodian who dropped their buckets, stopped cleaning and started making a mess.” I’m not sure if he’s joking. (Vasia Rigou)