Harris Diamant works in the zone. He’s conscious of neither past nor present in the creative process. Nor is he purposefully looking for content. “There are certain things I like in sculpture- horror, discomfort, something that both repels and draws you at the same time- so I seek them out.” During each precise, technically demanding undertaking, Diamant is unaware of himself. “I watch what my fingers are doing.” In an age of excessive mindfulness and a glut of forced information, the iconoclastic approach is as refreshing as it is startling.
Twenty plus years ago while experimenting with abstract, steel sculpture, Diamant found himself enamored of Egypt’s Amarna style, particularly heads created by Thutmose, official court sculptor to Pharaoh Akhenaten. “Heads are the most expressive part of the body.” Interpretation began with a nod to the historically exaggerated, often feminized shape sometimes described as “swollen.” Drawings, paintings, and carved, laminated wood pieces followed. These were succeeded by three dimensional compositions of peripatetically found objects he embedded in metal.
Until this exhibition, the artist’s heads were often dense and complex. Now, features float. Why? “Because it’s a new direction.”
“Beginnings are always difficult because I have all this stuff I’m not careful about or engaged with. If I hang in there and work long enough deciding to use an object, then I don’t put it down on the work table but on a piece of cloth. It becomes dear to me. Ultimately the parts become a whole that becomes dear to me… It’s like having an affair. I get into it and swept away believing the piece has broken new ground. During a moment of calm after it’s complete, however, it just feels like another one.”
The components of Diamant’s constructions are fascinating. Eyes, noses, mouths, ears and chins are cut out of mannequin heads generally secured on eBay. Until recently, these were fiberglass, a dangerous material with which to work, one requiring a mask. Newer mannequins are made of very hard foam, easier to carve and non-toxic. “The mouth you’re looking at had a tongue and teeth in it.” 23k ‘patent’ gold, aluminum, brass, copper and silver leaf are employed to cover these. “I vacuum five times a day…A real gilder would not consider me a gold leafer any more than a real machinist- I’ve got a 50” lathe I use all the time- would respect the fact that I’m plus or minus a fraction of an inch.” (It should be noted that these exacting skills are all self-taught)
The Odd Fellows Eye of God “very expressive, very beautiful,” is photographed, printed on archival paper, and used throughout. There’s a head whose mannequin eye sockets reveal interior photos with a second set of sockets. (Another has two chins) Look carefully.
One sculpture utilizes a mercury glass Butler’s Ball which was placed at the center of a nineteenth century table so that servants could unobtrusively see when services were needed by guests. Another includes a steel ball for arthritis exercise. Multiple aluminum gym rings, now gilded or covered in silk thread, were purchased years ago on Bleecker Street with surety that someday they’d be useful. Bakelite poker chips, several meat tenderizers, and old fashioned trumpet mutes can be found. Chrome plated, cast iron tools called neck mandrels are used as torsos. “I see stuff that carries a message with it.” Tools for measuring eyeglasses were frequent in earlier work, abandoned, and recently reconsidered. Why? “Ver vaist? Who knows? I don’t have a clue.” He laughs. The shop is a treasure trove of bizarre and interesting objects.
When Diamant is three quarters finished, he photographs each piece to gain perspective. (Everything is also photographed when complete.) A superb cameraman, he knows exactly what he’s doing. “I’m devoted to the process. I can spend easily an hour and a half shooting two pictures whereas I can’t spend more than three minutes just looking at a piece before I’m distracted.” Frequently surprised by something seen in a photograph, he makes adjustments. “Those eyes were once on the same level. I have an infinitude of options available. I could use two left eyes and you’d never notice.” He’s undoubtedly right.
Aesthetic challenges go home with him. “I pretty much false dream them and work things out then or the next day. If I don’t, I just do it again. And again. I don’t frustrate easily. It has to be right.”
“Each sculpture I make, even though the general format is the same- each one I make I like to think is an advance or an improvement on the last one, that it occupied space the other did not. I need to feel I’m going towards something I’ve never done before.”
“My hope, my aspiration, my desire is that the heads are somehow magical, totemic. To me, they’re three dimensional masks with Shamanistic lives. It should be like alchemy- you, the viewer, should see it without my articulating anything.” We do.
The Luise Ross Gallery is a modest space in which Harris’ work is displayed on pillars. Each piece revolves fully so one can look behind the eyes, inside heads. It’s ideal for impact and appreciation.