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Canberra Today 22°/30° | Tuesday, February 27, 2024 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Unconventional Sphinx show in gallery window

The Sphinx Bureau, a self-curated assemblage of Stephen Harrison’s 40 years of artwork from 1984 to 2024.

The newest exhibition in the window on the square at Canberra Museum and Gallery has something for people of all ages.

Artist Stephen Harrison has transformed the window gallery into a cabinet of curiosities in his exhibition, The Sphinx Bureau, a self-curated assemblage of his 40 years of artwork from 1984 to 2024.

It reveals a unique talent, unconventional in that Harrison started out in black-and-white pen drawing at the Canberra (now ANU) School of Art, moved into painting, then later retrained as a sculptor, focusing his attention on strange imaginings in  three-dimensional visions of Macbeth and the horses of the Apocalypse.

Stephen Harrison outside the window. Photo: Helen Musa

When I visit the gallery, CMAG curator Rebecca Richards pops by to say that artists exhibiting in the space are given freedom, “they can go crazy”. Unsurprisingly, there’s a long queue for the large, prominent window. The shows often run for several months, giving the artists exposure.

Another enticing feature of the space is that it’s viewable 24-hours, necessitating day and night installations, so Harrison has lit several objects internally.

“For this one, I had a very distinct idea,” he says. “Ink, oil and bronze – 40 years of artwork based in the legacy of Petr Herel and the Graphic Investigation Workshop at the Canberra School of Art… from Canberra to Prague and back to Canberra.”

Within his window of curiosities, apart from the drawings and paintings and bronze sculptures, which show Harrison’s technical skills, you’ll see disintegrating metal fighter-planes, a balloon, cereal package toys,  bric-a-brac and  the   “Prague towers” from  his early forays into sculpture.

“I like to give people something to look at, and to find,” he says.

The show is themed around the enigmatic character of the Sphinx, examples of which are seen in the large bronze on his central drawing desk and semi-hidden in cages.

Horse’s head emerges from frame

Always interested in Egyptian mythology, he started creating drawings about blind sphinxes in cages, but when his brother died from cancer last year, he realised that they were really about him.

“The bronze is a tribute to my brother,” he says, but adds that the theme is also consistent with the focus on  extinct or vanishing species seen in his drawings, sculptures and tombstones erected to dead animals.

There’s a strong link between the different phases of his work, which speaks of Harrison’s quirky sensibility. A three-dimensional horse’s head emerges from a picture frame, a Roman centurion dragging on a fag is painted formally in oils, the face of an Aboriginal child emerges before the shadowy outline of tall ships.

The exhibition is a precursor to the imminent publication of a book by Harrison, which pays tribute to his origins in the Graphic Investigation Workshop.

Stephen Harrison: The Sphinx Bureau, Canberra Museum and Gallery, until May 26.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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