Alexander Harrison’s Intimate Vignettes Are Imbued with Tension and Mystery

Jewels Dodson
Feb 16, 2023 4:28PM

Portrait of Alexander Harrison in his studio. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Looking into the distressed trompe l’œil wooden frame, there is a beautiful scene. Underneath a large midnight sky is an herbaceous spread of land. In the foreground sits a flower with a kelly green stalk lined with leaves. And atop the stalk is a cluster of buttercup flowers, their cornflower blue petals kissed by the light of a soft, distant moon. The scene would be perfect if not for a fallen flower detached from the bunch—its bittersweetness palpable.

This four-by-four-inch painting, Moon Lite Doom (2023), is part of several miniature works in Alexander Harrison’s current exhibition “Big World,” on view at New York’s Kasmin through March 4th. In 14 new pieces, Harrison creates snapshots into his ethereal world filled with mythical figures and robust themes.

Alexander Harrison, Moon Lite Doom, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.


Harrison’s work is an alchemy of feelings, imagery, and mystery. Oftentimes, the artist does not indicate when and where his scenes take place, leaving the viewer to infer from the sweeping skies filled with saffron and marigold hues whether it’s dusk or dawn. Meanwhile, his night skies, delightfully dark, are almost always illuminated by more than the moon naturally allows. Like the Italian Old Masters, Harrison dabbles with chiaroscuro, dancing between the contrasts of light and dark, not just visually, but conceptually, too.

In Forgive and Forget (2023), a butterfly fights to release its pear green wings that are nailed to Harrison’s omnipresent worn wood frames. It manages to liberate one wing, but not without lacerating it, its remnants still nailed onto the painted frame. Behind the butterfly’s torment is a lush landscape of pine green hues enveloped by a violet sky. Harrison weaves contrasting elements throughout his oeuvre; the result is a quiet but potent tension.

Alexander Harrison, Forgive and Forget, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Harrison’s use of landscape is the only clue about locale that he will lend to the viewer, and even that is obscure. For the artist—a native of Greenville, South Carolina—picturesque backdrops are almost always a reference to his Southern roots. Harrison grew up in a close-knit community in an area referred to as “the gold mine,” where much of his family still lives.

As a child, he wanted to be a paleontologist and constantly drew dinosaurs, an early iteration of his artistic practice. His mother enrolled him in art-focused courses and schools, where a teacher encouraged and assisted Harrison in attending collegiate summer programs. Later, as a student at Maryland Institute of College of Art, he shifted his studies from illustration to painting. But Harrison had to pivot once again when he was unable to complete his costly degree, and had to return home.

Alexander Harrison, Boo-Hoo Flowers, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

By 2017, he moved to New York and got a job designing record covers and album art as an illustrator at the record label Fool’s Gold. When he was spontaneously invited to participate in a one-night group exhibition at the now-defunct Fisher Parrish Gallery, Harrison’s dream of becoming a working contemporary artist began to actualize.

His painting Keep It Movin packed a punch and sparked interest, leading the gallery to want to represent him. In late 2019, it mounted “Sundown Town,” Harrison’s first solo exhibition. “I just needed time to breathe and figure out my voice as an artist,” Harrison said. “I’ve had to just figure it out as I’m working.” In his debut solo show, he was just beginning to discover his voice as an artist, developing the visual language he continues to explore now.

Alexander Harrison, Down in the Mouth, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Portrayals of insects, foliage, fruits, flowers, and Black men in various circumstances have all become part of Harrison’s lexicon. The Black cowboy, a protagonist in several pieces, is particularly special. “The cowboy hat is an homage to a strong, fatherly, paternal figure. It’s not necessarily like the western cowboy,” Harrison said. “The cowboy [is] based off my grandfather, because he always wore a cowboy hat. I always looked up to him, he’s a jack of all trades. He’s kind to everyone, will help anyone.”

Symbolism is a way for Harrison to have a dialogue with viewers without being overly explicit. “I don’t like spelling my paintings out, it’s more so I want a feeling there,” he said emphatically. Keeping some aspects covert adds a level of complexity and dimension. Like many artists, the work isn’t really an independent act, it’s a symbiosis between him and the audience. He trusts they will not only decipher, but intimately understand the layers in his work.

Alexander Harrison, Two Birds, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Intimacy is a constant undercurrent in Harrison’s practice; it shows up in the size of the work and how he layers his concepts. “I like for people to get lost in my paintings and feel the distance from the furthest star you see in the sky to the antenna on a butterfly,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in creating distance and intimacy with my paintings. And I feel like I can really convey that idea with smaller paintings.”

Small-scale works demand viewers to get close, step in, and look intently. They may even be rewarded for their rapt attention. “I like to have hidden gems in my paintings. If you are just blowing past my painting, you might miss something,” Harrison warned. In Two Birds (2023), for example, a small cerulean bird sits atop a tree stump fractured by an ax, as a panorama of flora cascades in the distance. It’s only with deeper engagement that viewers find a dead bird steeped in the depths of the foreground. The life of one bird and loss of another triggers a myriad of thoughts on death, evolution, jealousy, and survival. Harrison’s hidden gems garner intimacy physically and conceptually.

Alexander Harrison, Down by The Old Oak, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores. Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

Alexander Harrison, Land of Infinite Wonders, 2023. Photo by Diego Flores.Courtesy of the artist and Kasmin, New York.

One of the most intense and striking works in “Big World” is also incredibly heart-wrenching. In the background of Land of Infinite Wonders (2023), a valley gleams with nature’s bounty. But in the foreground, a large melanated foot, most likely belonging to a man, is enraptured in thorny vines that puncture into the skin, causing blood to stream. Here, Harrison is less inconspicuous, but the work isn’t a tell-all; there’s still so much the observer has to infer. The imagery reminds me of an anecdote about Frederick Douglass that said he prayed incessantly for his freedom, and one day, he prayed with his feet—he ran. Looking at Land of Infinite Wonders, I am reminded of all the enslaved Africans who ran toward freedom with bloody feet and brave hearts.

Having landed on stable ground after periods of uncertainty in the art world, Harrison is looking toward new horizons. “I’m excited for the next chapter moving out of New York and seeing where that takes my work, like the change of pace, the change of scenery, being down South and having access to that inspiration directly,” he said.

Jewels Dodson

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the run of Alexander Harrison’s “Big World” exhibition. The show was extended to March 4th. The text has been updated accordingly.