Not many contemporary artists concern themselves too much with anatomy these days. It makes painter Geoffrey Harrison an exception to the rule. The Londoner is so familiar with the workings of the body and proximity of death, that he could teach shark pickler Damien Hirst a thing or two.
Both Harrison’s parents were medical illustrators. Last year he completed a residency at a pathology museum. And this year he is following that with a stint at a veterinary college. So while he might not be procuring corpses from a local morgue, he is quite at home with specimen jars.
“I’ve always been interested in anatomy,” he tells me by phone, “the gorier side of things”. But then he tells me he wants to “rehumanize” his responses to preserved body parts, saying: “I kind of want to get back some of the squeamishness that other people might have”.
Harrison is softly spoken and engaging . For a seasoned observer of the mortal condition, he is ready with considered responses, yet in evident possession of a sense of humour. Surrounded by the body parts and organs of humans and animals, he is working through a sense of desensitization.
At Barts Pathology Museum, this meant digging up a few facts on the owners of those disembodied organs one finds in jars. “In many cases there were background written about them. You just had to find them and read them,” he says.
“That made them much more emotionally powerful and emotionally charged as objects. That was a way to reengage on a human level “. But no matter how close Harrison has got to dead bodies, he is still perplexed by death.
“That’s a very difficult thing to actually really be honest about, or say we can cope with,” he says. So despite what he may have learned about pathology or animal illnesses, Harrison still finds the reaper “challenging”, and that is perhaps more honest than a bravura shark in a vitrine.
But Harrison is nevertheless drawn to the natural world. He says he really likes animals, adding: “They’re a great source of meaning and metaphor, which is why I think a lot of artists are drawn to animals. You can say quite a lot”.
“There’s a type of archetypal mythology with animals so you can, sort of by just employing the image of an animal, you can invoke a kind of coded meaning,” he adds. And never mind the fact that most of the poor creatures he gets to work with are long dead.
Harrison tells me about a recent drawing of a dog muzzle which had been sliced clean off. It seems a strange thing to aestheticize. “I want to make beautiful things. I still think that has currency. But I’m cautious about saying that I’m in the business of making beautiful things. I don’t think I am.”
“It depends on how closely you look at something,” he adds. But the artist also maintains that rather than beauty, meaning is the real currency of fine art: “Those hidden meanings… in what you decide to include in your painting and whether you’re aware of those meanings or not.”
But if a painted dog symbolises fidelity, as Harrison points out, what can a disembodied muzzle tell us? Not many artists traffic in the meaning of isolated body parts. Perhaps the meanings come to us only when confronted by a painting.
“For me painting seems to be this sort of process of allowing lots of accidents to happen and then leaving the ones that you like the most, compared with all the other accidents, and taking the credit for them as well,” says Harrison with a laugh.
Perhaps that is the difference between painter and surgeon. We don’t want our surgeons to leave things to chance.