Artist of the Week

Spencer Harris

November 8, 2021

Spencer Harris is a painter from San Antonio, TX working in New York, NY. His works are about symbolic language and ingrained memory, in order to analyze differences between what memories remain and what are lost with time. The imagery is rooted in his experience growing up in the south, boyhood, coming of age, pop culture and family influences. Through a process of associative memory recollection Harris recreates imagery and apply it onto surfaces in methods varying from realist painting to found material, collage, and stencils. Harris recently graduated with his MFA in Painting from the Pratt Institute and has been exhibited in New York, Spain, Chicago, and Texas.

Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.

My name is Spencer Harris, I’m a painter and was born in San Antonio, Texas. I currently live in New York City.

What made you want to become an artist?

I initially wanted to become a sneaker designer, but while enrolled in design courses in Undergrad I fell in love with my independent studio practice. I had never really painted before then so there were definitely some formatively harsh critique years in there. My professor started to show me books on Guston and Morandi and he even showed me New American Painting issues, and it really opened up my eyes to how diverse and open painting can be.

“Untitled”, 2021. Oil, Acrylic, Collage on Canvas, 75” x 60”.

What is your typical approach to the composition of your paintings?

I kind of have to start and finish a single painting before I can transition onto another work, and often times they happen very quickly. Because the imagery branches off of another piece of imagery in the work. The imagery is about the relationships in between, I have an idea or a list of ideas on a note I keep that I choose as a starting point when it feels right, from there I let my mind run with whatever sort of next logical image I find to include in the work. If an image of Homer Simpson makes me think next about a drop shadow exploded hole breaking through the canvas next I let it, I try not to break that chain of thought from coming up, because what’s interesting to me is subconscious or even unconscious relationships.

What does your studio look like?

My studio is pretty precise and well kept. I like spontaneous moments and I get really stressed out by the idea of a thought or idea getting lost by me not being prepared to handle it. If I want to paint something in that moment I need to know exactly where that tool is and have it ready to go at that moments notice.

Spencer Harris in his New York studio.

How would you say skateboarding affected your aesthetic sensibilities?

Skateboarding has definitely been a conscious to sub-conscious part of my experience growing up. If I wasn’t trying to do it I was keeping up with it, collecting magazines and inhaling content online. The graphic similarities are probably pretty apparent even when I don’t intend it, but I think the part of skateboarding attributed most to my painting practice was the relationship that brand imagery and graphics can have with what sort of person or lifestyle we attribute that to culturally. Also skateboard graphics and imagery are often so directly targeted at specific demographics, genders and age groups, in a way that as consumers we might see but often ignore. I think that it’s a small example of how it’s interesting to think about semiotic relationships to snapshots of our past life.

“Untitled”, 2021. Acrylic, Hustler Vintage Trading Card, Paper on Canvas, 24” x 18.

What was your experience like when you moved to New York?

Moving to New York was honestly terrible, for the first year if I wasn’t physically sick I was making myself sick from stress and anxiety. That being now that I’ve settled into it I find I need the option of constant stimulation. I don’t really take advantage of that I mostly spend my time at home, but I like to know I have the option to do something fun if I want to.

Text appears very frequently in your work but is usually very sparse in the compositions, how would you describe your consideration of the words and phrases?

I think the actual words are afterthought to a typographical style I choose to illustrate the words. I’ve been trying to get good at airbrush lettering because it reminds me of seeing the technicolor trucker hats and shirts at the beach growing up. But I’m mostly in the studio just writing the word “Beach” over and over. It allows me to disconnect from the content of the word and relate to the physical format of lettering and branding.

“Untitled”, 2021. Acrylic, Colored Pencil, Paper on Canvas, 75” x 60”.

What is your favorite studio snack?

My favorite studio snack is definitely peanut butter filled pretzels nuggets, big salty sweet guy, snacks are definitely going to be what kills me.

“Untitled”, 2021. Oil Pastel, Acrylic, Pen, Collage on Canvas, 50” x 45”.

Your paintings contain a wide selection of recognizable imagery, how do you typically source the subject matter of your work?

Imagery usually has to come back to me, or remind me of something else. I’m fortunate to live in a city so overgrown with visual information and people, and even when I’m at home I’m ingesting more content on tv, or my phone, or a magazine. I’ll usually happen upon something and think about why I recognize it and write it down, and then maybe when going back through my notes I’ll stick to something and want to make a painting about it.

Do you have any daily rituals?

Probably watching TikTok right now, or going out to get snacks.

Interview conducted and edited by Sam Dybeck.