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The surreal space between truth and fiction: Mary Harman

By Sarah Messerschmidt

I first encountered Mary Harman through my mother (they are long time peripheral friends) and have spent many years since quietly admiring her work, often as it adorns the walls of houses I knew in childhood. She is a studio painter by profession, this practice largely shifting between landscape and illusionistic trompe l’oeil painting, though since the early 1990s she has held an additional practice in holography and sculptural assemblage, working with light to distort optical perceptions of space. Used in combination, the four media are delightfully surreal. Often brooding and inexplicably sinister, Mary’s works haunt and excite me, owing to their richness in symbolism and layering of references, their qualities of foreboding and disquiet. As Surrealist art often does, her work plays with the unclear lines between reality and illusion, emphasising how easily one can slip between the two poles, perhaps even to suggest that there is no such binary as truth and fiction.

House Guest (reflection hologram, digital photo; 1992)

If not self-identified as a Surrealist artist, Mary certainly specialises in Surrealist gesture. While her work is informed by many areas of art history and their broader contexts, she adopts and subverts these tropes to fit an atmosphere of unreality. A recurring theme in her work—and certainly one that draws me—are the human figures she both paints and sculpts, their faces rendered artificially two-dimensional. Mary has a particular fascination with the human face and its repertoire of expressions, yet while much of her painted works are given to figurative realism—particularly her still life and landscape paintings—her renderings of the human form (and, moreover, the human face) are curiously and consistently unnatural. There is a dissonance between how she depicts a spoon, for example (another common feature of her painting), and the expressions held by her troupe of eccentric characters, who are often reduced to simple caricatures of human emotionality. There is an interesting paradox at work: first, that Mary engages the Surrealist convention to reveal the psyche via symbols and allusion, and second, that the masked or painted face traditionally conceals genuine expression. What is left is an discomfiting instability between the explicit and the suggested.

Dancing with Fools (acrylic on canvas; 2008)

In Dancing With Fools (above), a chaotic scene of movement, flowing hair and brightly coloured costume, four figures fix each other with side glances, their features exaggeratedly simple, yet unsettling. All four share the same shallow veneer, as though with faces painted on, while their bodies writhe and twist to silent music. A small yellow canary perches in one dancer’s hand, allegedly to symbolise truth. The work was developed from a larger painting—since destroyed—titled New Order (below), a hallucinatory beach scene in which throngs of dancing and gesticulating clowns seem to revel wildly in impending chaos. Looming above the dancers, unusually large buildings are suspended on stilts, sure to be toppled by the slightest provocation. New Order was painted in response to the 2008 financial crisis when, as Mary writes, ‘cracks started appearing in the infrastructure of Western capitalism,’ and certainly, she suggests, the structures of our world order are as precarious and as unlikely as these feats of architecture. The work implores us to consider which is more believable, our real-world systems or Mary’s painted folly, taking compositional cues from Goya’s Procession of Flagellants and Wesley Bellows’ Dance at Insane Asylum by using dance as a metaphor for unrestrained madness. As the sentiment goes, only fools cavort as the world around them crumbles. Like these earlier works, New Order foregrounds bodies in somewhat grotesque movement, yet the figures in Mary’s work are relatively nondescript, many of them possessing faces that are mostly, or at least partially concealed, and who otherwise recede into an indistinct mass of bodies that blend with the shoreline. A smattering of figures lack features altogether, their faces left entirely blank, consistent with her central project to challenge the distinction between reality and illusion.

New Order (acrylic on canvas; 2008).

A major archetype in Mary’s work is the tragicomic figure of the clown, whose painted face is like a facade to conceal genuine expression. Borrowing from pantomime, the clowns of Mary’s painted works are reminiscent of the fixed personalities of the pan-European Commedia dell’arte tradition, many of them bearing a strong likeness to Pierrot, the notoriously foolish and white-faced sad-clown. Like Pierrot, Mary’s clowns seem rarely to be light-hearted. They instead appear dejected, exhausted, alarmed, or sinister; when they sport a laugh or a sardonic smile, it always teeters on the edge of despair or horror, these clowns having long ago run out of gags. Regardless of their specific features, however, all share the same stiffness of expression. The unreadability of the painted face, even when signalling emotion, forecloses the viewer’s ability to properly detect nuance, to trust that what they see is human expression. The emotionality of the clowns presents as theatrical, and as such is perhaps unconvincing and insincere. In Voyage (below), for instance, two sad clowns brace against a gust of wind, seeming to exist in an unhappy purgatory, an uncertain landscape around them as though they are swallowed by fog. There is a sense of detachment or estrangement. One of the clowns clutches a large blackbird (distinguishable by its orange beak, though its significance is unclear), and both appear forlorn, staring up reluctantly through heavy brows. There is something sleepy and downtrodden about their expressions—certainly this is a melancholic scene—and yet both wear faces like masks, rigid and seemingly immutable. The reality (or illusion) of affected emotion is bolstered via the notion that clowns exist to perform.

Voyage (acrylic on canvas).

In a contemporary resurrection of the Cycladic figures of Ancient Greece, Mary produces small terracotta and plaster figurines as a supplementary artistic practice. Like votive miniatures, these small sculptures are often no larger than a hand. She writes, ‘I cast plaster multiples that became my muses; they sat on windowsills in the sun or lay hidden in a friend’s pocket, an amulet that gave comfort to the hand that reached in to hold it.’ As quasi-cult objects, the figurines are thus imbued with a kind of mystical power to be used in ritual as idols, or to be given as gifts. Like the clowns in Voyage, these small sculptures are at once unfamiliar and uncanny—many are forged only as busts, some without limbs. They, too, often appear dazed, faces variously upturned or downcast, and with their hooded eyes I imagine the creatures emitting a soft, wistful sigh. Others appear to scream in pain, mouths open in a wide O, or twisted in a silent wail. As hand-held objects, the figurines are easily transferred from place to place, animated in a way in which works of art rarely are, yet their bodiless, mask-like faces nevertheless render them unconvincing as human figures, enacting another discordance in the truth-fiction binary. As well, Mary’s allusion to muses bespeaks her interest in the spirit, but also in death and transience, further instances of in-between states that upset the concreteness of a perceived reality.


The status of the Cycladic figures in ancient Greece as votive or funerary offerings reinforces the idea of Mary’s handmade figurines as spectres or spirits, particularly as they are used in combination with her more experimental holographic works. As a light-based medium, holographic images are inherently ephemeral and transitory. Made up of minuscule photons that occupy a volume in space, holograms have both depth and transparency: they are simultaneously material and immaterial, and in the context of Mary’s work, holograms become representative of both body and soul. Anthropos, for instance, a DCG (dichromated gelatin) hologram mounted inside an army ration box, is an assemblage work in which a grouping of plaster figurines are each bestowed with a corresponding double, like glowing blue auras. The figurines grimace and sneer, and stare confusedly at their holographic counterparts as though confronted with souls that have left their bodies. In Transitional States, a supine figurine lies prostrate beneath its ephemeral twin, who levitates glowingly like a spirit ascending. In each case, the material object is given a metaphysical double that is more than simply a duplicate, but rather, that stands in as the non-physical entity of the material object. ‘I think of [holography] as a meditative state somehow suspended between two planes of existence.’ Mary explains of her practice, and quoting the artist Jaques Desbiens, she writes, ‘“The hologram creates a presence but no substance, except as light and meaning. This object/image ambiguity is fundamental in holography because it creates a tension between real and virtual far more obvious than with any other medium.”’ When situated in relation to physical objects and painted surface, holograms appear to occupy the same space as these other surfaces, challenging the viewer’s ability to accurately perceive spatial depth. Holographic images can also give an illusion of space that recedes beyond the dimensions of an exhibited work, and yet, Mary writes, viewers tend to accept holographic illusions as possible. Nevertheless, holographic images precisely convey the notion of fragility Mary’s works so regularly deal with.

Transitional States #3 (Body and Soul)

The phantoms that appear in Mary’s work are multiple and various. In many cases, her artistic practices are a means of dealing with the unreality of the contemporary every day. They represent personal fears—a mother anxious over a son’s overseas draft, a nurse confronted with the corporeal suffering of her hospital patients—while also influenced by larger systemic issues—climate disaster, dubious American politics, the threat of war. A common theme of the Surrealist project was a distrust for institutions, and certainly Mary’s work engages this anti-institutional ideology: she openly opposes military forces (in 1967 Mary and her husband chose to disregard the Vietnam draft, which ultimately led them to Canada, where she now lives), American political systems, the election of Trump in 2016 and the subsequent years of ‘post-truth politics’ in America. Her work exposes a fear of containment or confinement by such systems, and the inherent fragility of the human body that is subject to them. Her interest in the idea of reality, she claims, is both a philosophical and a perceptual one. Ultimately, this challenge to the binary of reality and illusion comes as an incitement to think more critically about what is seen and heard in the world we live in, in order to acknowledge that the space between truth and fiction is not so wide.


Harman, M. ‘Holographic Reconstruction of Objects in a Mixed-Reality, Post-Truth Era: A Personal Essay’. MDPI Arts, 2019, 8, 102.

‘West Coast Artists in Light’, video documentary on U.S.-Canadian holographic artists (1995/96), (Mary Harman, clip)

Mary explains her exhibition ‘Object and Illusion’ at the Butler Institute of American Art, Sept 2009 - Jan 2010:


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