The Work of Paul Harbutt

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‘Bad Boys’ Exhibition at Museum Carlo Bilotti Rome, Italy 2013

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‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ 2014

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Exhibition review John Davis Gallery 2016

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Art and about: Weird and wonderful Wendy
by John Isaacs

I had three very different mentors in my study of the philosophy of art, each with a different mindset, based in law, theatre, and history, but they all suggested that the central factor in art criticism is psychology. Creativity, they asserted, is the expression of unconscious impulses. To be honest, I was never convinced by the Freudian premise, even while it was fashionable.
Nowadays, though, I’m more frequently disillusioned by the vacuous pretension of so much art criticism that glorifies style over analysis.
Surely, there’s a middle way. I’m of the school that looks at art through three prisms: the intent, the idea, and the execution. I wouldn’t dismiss the psychological component, but I would ground it less in the unconscious and more in temperament.
I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on “style”. Style’s a complex subject, and I’m still, decades later, trying to get my head around it. But if ever there’s a constant aspect of style, temperament is visible in all great art. Compare the mercurial Turner to the languid Constable. Consider the fiery Goya. The unstoppable Picasso.
Like Pablo, Paul Harbutt is a compulsive painter. A fellow north Londoner, trained at the Royal College at the same the time I was soaking up theory at the Courtauld Institute, his compulsions were already in full fling. A frenetically productive image-maker with apparently endless imagination, he, as did I, moved to New York in the early seventies, but then went on to Seville, and Rome in particular, where he fashioned a style very much his own, but rooted in Italian surrealism.
I have another esteemed artist friend, whose name I’ll not mention, but who aficionados will recognize. A quiet, gentle man, he paints exquisite small canvasses of bottles and ceramics bathed in Mediterranean light, and languorous, scantily clothed young women lounging in Apennine landscapes. His style perfectly reflects his temperament, and love for the nicer, gently seasoned side of earthly life.
Harbutt’s more on the mercurial orbit, that much closer to the sun. Rarely
lyrical but always ingenious, his work is most often violent, cynical, and ominous, even if often a bit humorous, even cartoonish. You never know what you’re going to run into. It’s a hair-raising ride, which occasionally falls prey to sensationalism. In recent work, however, his mood, as he grows older, seems to have tempered some.
His series of six large semi-abstract canvasses, inspired by and dedicated to a friend who died recently, is currently exhibited at the John Davis Gallery in Hudson. Wendy was Australian, but she could be Dora Maar. And the mangled lines that suffuse these works could be aboriginal. The imagery is still dark and sad, but whatever misanthropy animated Harbutt’s earlier work is redeemed by these heartfelt, fully conscious, skillful and evocative tributes.
I’ve never visited weird and wonderful Australia, and have no idea who Wendy might have been. But in his weird and wonderful images, convoluted though they are, Harbutt captures the culture, and the spirit of the mysterious woman who walked and waltzed through it. The intent, to honor a deep friendship, is evident and evocative. The idea, to reflect on a life, is clear and authentic. The execution, at once elegant and uncontrolled, is appropriate, and without pretension. Such delightfully idiosyncratic works are the marks of a temperamentally mature artist.