Shedding Light on David Harman’s Work: An Art Historical Response to His 2012 Paintings

Robert Puschautz

David Harman’s paintings border a variety of artistic genres, from traditional landscapes to Impressionism, but his process separates him from these classifications. Harman memorializes his photos of light by painting them. Although he transforms his images, he retains the photographic quality.  Through this process, he makes these images of light a metaphor for his understanding of the divine.

Elm Street

When one first approaches Harman’s work, traditional American landscapes come to mind.  Frederick Church, a 19th century landscape artist, painted large scale works that point to the overall transcendence of nature by dramatizing the beauty of a specific location.  Church and other landscape artists focused on the naturalistic representation of form, depth, and texture in their paintings. Despite the similarities of striking light and transcendent themes, Harman’s landscapes are differentiated by certain ambiguities. Harman gives no specific details that indicate an objective location. While they point to a certain place or specific moment for Harman, this significance remains hidden from the viewer, except through his explanatory titles, such as Elm Street. The objects that usually characterize a location are either flattened or given only enough attention to suggest what they are.

Impression, Sunrise, Claude Monet. Photo by Joaquin Martinez Rosado.

Impression, Sunrise, one of Claude Monet’s earliest impressionist pieces, has similarities with Harman’s work in its depictions of the sun and its effects.  Monet prefered to emphasize the light throughout an entire scene rather than painting individual forms.  For example, the harbor, horizon, and masts in the background are indistinguishable. The only difference between sky and water are the flecks of paint describing the ripples of waves. Like Monet, Harman’s work features the phenomena of light and the way it reflects on the surroundings.  He also forgoes painting distinct forms in favor of planes of color or impressions. For Harman, however, light is the prominent “landmark” in the place he paints.  All other identifiable details in the image are of relative importance to the light; he frames the painting around it. Trees fade into and out of the light source and objects are flattened to the point of becoming indistinct silhouettes.  In Elm Street the light transforms the landscape, to the point of blotting out the tree, background and part of the street.

Another difference between the two is their expression of transience. In Impression, Sunrise, Monet’s loose brushwork describe shifting light and form, a passing scene. Despite Monet’s claim that landscapes were an instantaneous impression, change in time was integral to his work because he painted outdoors from nature. The photographed landscapes in Harman’s work are far more “instantaneous” yet far less of an impression because of their permanence. The sun, for example, rises in a matter of minutes but once photographed, it is separated from the reality that continues to change. It is here that I disagree with the former response. Harman does not make studies of light, but rather paints from photographs about light.  It is only with a camera that he could record these instantaneous occurrences such as the direct view of the sun, fleeting conditions of light, ripples in water, specific cloud patterns, and reflective surfaces.   He then paints the scene from the photo, choosing to retain the distortions of the camera effects.  Painting, for Harman, is a process that allows him to meditate on these transient moments. His intention predominantly seems to be preserving the memory of significant events or places rather than creating a natural looking landscape.  Because he dwells so intensely on past moments, his paintings come across as melancholic or memorials to loss.

Other aspects of his style contribute to this pensive mood. The objects in the painting flatten out (an effect of photography), such that they coalesce into fields of color like Mark Rothko’s work. Harman also uses glazed and matte surfaces to draw more attention to the reflections of light and his meditative process.  Finally, his titles indicate a certain sentimentality about the remembrance of these moments.

Light, Harman’s primary subject matter, is a metaphor for his reflective process. Through painting he changes and transforms the initial experience just as the light parts the branches in his paintings. They can be viewed as self portraits, insights into his way of thinking.  A stronger metaphor in continuity with 19th century American landscapes for light in his paintings is the intimate relationship between the divine and all of creation.  Landscapes are not merely accurate representations of a place.  They bear the imprint of the values of the artist who wish to open up the eyes of the viewer to the meaning they see in the land.  The metaphor: the source of light is the divine light which is reflected by creation: the illuminated surfaces, water, and trees.  For the artist, the objects are important insofar as their capacity to reflect the light, just as creation’s purpose is to conform to the divine light. In this context, there is a consolation in reflecting on these poignant moments. They do not remain only memorials of loss because the beauty and intimacy of each points to an eternal purpose.

If these suppositions about the intention of the paintings are correct, then the scale of the paintings should fit that intention. According to his current work, the range of medium sizes (1-3 ft.)  seems arbitrary. They ought to be much larger in order to communicate the sense of wonder and significance that he has placed on the experiences. Or, they ought to be smaller to present the fragility and intimacy that each of these moments carries.


Robert Puschautz earned his B.F.A. in painting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and teaches art at the Latin School of Chicago.