Six questions for
Charles Harlan

Tique asks six questions to an artist about their work and inspiration.
This week: Charles Harlan.

Artist Charles Harlan
Lives in Wilmington, NC

How do you describe your own art practice?

I’ve always just described my practice as sculpture. But recently I’ve been doing a lot of drawing, which has been a very refreshing change. Making sculpture for me is a fraught process of gathering and manipulating materials. A lot of mistakes. Whereas with drawing I can sit and work for hours and only ruin a piece of paper. So the stakes feel lower. But I primarily make sculptures.

Which question or theme is central in your work?

On a recent visit to Ireland, I was able to travel to the countryside and visit several stone circles and standing stones. These ancient monuments are mysterious to us due to the depth of time between their creators and ourselves. Without any written accounting we can only guess their purpose and take in the beauty of their natural surroundings. As alienated as I am from the methods and intentions of the neolithic and bronze age people who charted these configurations, I am left to view their work as art objects—a language I am slightly more versed in. This lack of context creates an artistic experience unlike visiting a gallery or museum, but also unlike hiking or site-seeing. Approaching these archeological objects necessarily as an artist lends itself to an artistic experience that I return to in my own practice: viewing mundane objects as though they were sculptures. I find myself having the artistic experience with a non-art object, whether that be in a natural setting or on the sidewalk, and then as a sculptor, trying to translate that experience into an art-viewing context. Either by bringing the found object into a gallery, or isolating a building material in a way to decontextualize it from its use value. And this tension between found object and sculpture is what I draw inspiration from—that mystery that makes something art.

What was your first experience with art?

Growing up, I didn’t know much about contemporary art. But I had a great art teacher in high school. He was really into southern self-taught art. He introduced me to a lot of artists in the area surrounding Georgia. On weekends I would drive around and meet artists like Mose Tolliver, Howard Finster, Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Myrtice West, and R.A. Miller. I would see where they worked and maybe buy something from them. That was my first experience with art outside of history books, and just meeting people that were compelled to produce tons of work was incredibly valuable.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

I always return to the monuments and ruins of ancient people that I mentioned above. There is something in that desire that led hunter-gatherers to create massive megalithic temple structures, like Göbekli Tepe, that is still animating for artists today. Maybe a desire to communicate with the future? In Ireland I visited the Loughcrew Cairns, which were built 5,000 years ago. At the base of one of the mounds is a giant 2 ton stone shaped like a throne called “The Hag’s Chair”. How and why the builders—who likely did not yet have the wheel—were compelled to hoist such a heavy stone to the top of this hill is unknowable. Like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo dragging the boat over the mountain for the opera. I want to make art that is similarly confounding.

What do you need in order to create your work?

Because of the materials I use, I often find myself traveling to make sculpture on site as opposed to shipping a bunch of stones or bricks or whatever. Wherever I am I always need a good hardware store. I recently did a residency off the coast of North Carolina and was at the little hardware store every day looking for some thing or another. When I did a booth for Art Basel Hong Kong I made a lot of the work there, and spent a week in foreign hardware stores—the more specialized the better. You can tell a lot about a place by the type of hardware store they have.

What work or artist has most recently surprised you?

My friend Rose Marcus recently had a show of photographs at David Petersen Gallery in Minneapolis that I didn’t get to see in person, but spent time looking at the images online. I’m always surprised by Rose’s ability to make a photograph seem sculptural. The way that the materiality of the photographic process or the framing is incorporated into the picture is what gets me.

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