Sarah Harvey’s figure portraits are the fruit of an unusual technique. Often seeking out a third person to photograph her bathing in emerald waters, she then pieces together the underwater images to build pictures of herself or another immersed in, and obscured by, liquid and light. These she works up into large canvases that provoke an immediate response of curiosity, of desiring to engage with and discover the person through a fluid confusion of visual cues.
Sarah Harvey has been painting images of herself in the water for many years. Time and again, her body appears immersed in the water – refracted, distorted, liquefied, and abstracted with almost hyper-real attention to detail. But as her work has developed, it has become clear that these paintings are much more than the tantalising, exotic images that they at first appear to be. Beneath their beautiful veneer, Sarah’s works have come to represent a frank and unflinching autobiography of an ambitious young woman developing as an artist, grappling with her success, exploring her personal life, and translating it all into paint with almost obsessive discipline of self-examination. Taken together, her paintings act like a psychological profile of a 21st century woman, replete with all the sexual and power undertones that this implies. The Pleasure Principle is Sarah’s most dynamic body of work to date, and brings to the fore some of the most pertinent themes that run right through her work: sexuality, desire, ambition and power, insecurity and determination, and, for the first time, her close emotional relationships. Key to the process is Sarah’s chosen element: the water. On an aesthetic level, it provides the exotic and luxuriant quality to her paintings, and their initial attraction. Immersion in water is sensual and tactile, and immediately takes the viewer to another place, an escape into an environment where different rules apply. Sarah’s skill in capturing the way light refracts in the water is uncanny, and together with her ability to leave the canvases with an almost liquid finish, lends her paintings the jewel-like quality that fascinates so many of her collectors. But the water also functions on a more symbolic level: as a place to carry out the narcissistic agenda of self-examination and analysis, whilst also providing a degree of displacement, a kind of emotional cushioning, that makes it possible for her to do this with honesty and sincerity. It is her honesty that gives Sarah’s works their other fascinating quality – their trueness to character, both positive and negative. Freudian theory surrounding the Pleasure Principle suggests that the act of repetition is part of a process of coming to terms with (and mastering) events and impulses that an individual confronts in their lives. With Sarah, this is clear to see. The paintings in this exhibition show an invigorated sexuality and a feminine confidence that dominate and bedazzle images of her fiance. That they are soon to be married is suggested through the bondage that they both appear to grapple with in paintings such as Red Ribbon or ‘L’ is for the way you look at me – a motif at the same time figurative and masochistic. The carnal qualities of the figures make them vulnerable, human, and yet Sarah’s entire practice is still one of empowerment. It just so happens that this involves themes such as lust, drive, desire, indulgence, confidence, insecurity, playfulness and sensuality. In short, it looks at the impulses we all deal with on a day to day basis, and reconcile in our own individual ways. In essence, Sarah’s paintings are thus very human, both figuratively and thematically, and they deal with human experience in a way that makes it magical. She draws deeply on very British painting traditions, from School of London painters such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Michael Andrews (with echoes of David Hockney’s pool paintings), as well as alluding to contemporary figurative artists such as Jenny Saville – many of whom have approached the carnal qualities of the human body as a means of exploring deeper psychological matters. It is Sarah’s strength that she takes up this approach and makes it her own, navigating the difficult relationship between beauty and gravitas, and echoing in the process the position of women in today’s society – frequently expected to be beautiful, but still driven by individual ambitions and complexities.