The gallery has been named one of the best galleries in the world by GQ Magazine and Harper has been named an artist to watch by CNN.
His work, however, hasn’t always been embraced. He faced a lot of rejection when he was fresh out of school. “When I went out to New York in my early 20s, I went around from gallery to gallery shopping my portfolio around. It was a very cold and sterile atmosphere. People weren’t welcoming,” he said.
At the Rogue Buddha, he’s worked to create a more welcoming and inviting environment that showcases art without a side of elitism. The gallery first opened in a space on East Hennepin on New Year’s Eve, 1999. It moved over to its current space on 13th Avenue about five and a half years ago.
Harper recently spoke with the Downtown Journal about his gallery and artwork.
DTJ: What was the impetus for opening the gallery?
Harper: I opened up the gallery with the idea that I would show local artists, student artists — people who hadn’t a lot of exposure who were new to the industry. For the first couple years, it was a learning experience for myself on how to run a gallery and how to be a professional artist. It was almost a collaboration between me and the artists that I was showing.
… Something started to change three years into the gallery. By this time I had trial by fire learned a lot about the gallery business. A number of galleries started opening in Minneapolis showing exactly what I had intended to at the beginning. So at that point, I started thinking that since that market is being fulfilled, I wanted to take the Rogue Buddha to a different level. I started to show more established artists and also more national and internationally based artists.
So the idea being that I would still have a focus of Minneapolis-based artists and the rest from people outside the state so it would be a good mix of people.
Is there a common theme among the artists you show?
The first premise for me is quality. I definitely want to show artists that are serious about their artwork in terms of developing it technically speaking — as well as philosophically speaking. From there I show a pretty broad range of work. I’m drawn to figuration so the majority of the work is based on the figure. I try to find work that is presenting something in a new way. But more importantly than being new, it has to be technically good.
How would you describe your artwork?
There is a personal symbolism at use in the paintings. I’m mostly well known for the paintings of women with long necks. When I first started getting really serious about my art, I developed that narrative. Now it’s about half the paintings I do. It’s a trademark thing people know me for. To me the head is representing our spiritual potential — our divinity. The hands represent how we actually interact with the world and with ourselves. What we actually think and how we talk to people and treat people.
What ends up happening in the paintings is that I typically draw the hands as gnarled and lower in the picture frame. The arms are usually disconnected from the rest of the body. The idea is there is the tension between the two sides within each individual. The long neck helps to visually symbolize that. That’s one level of the symbolic approach to it. Another part with the long necks specifically is that it almost acts like a pedestal, and things on pedestals are important and valuable. So the head rests on this pedestal.
… If you step away from the painting and look it as a whole, I want it to be beautiful. That’s what I want the individual to be able to see within themselves. If you step outside of your own body and look at yourself, you are perfect right where you are. You don’t have to reach this enlightenment level and you don’t have to dwell on the worldly aspect either. From there then things start to improve if you’re OK with yourself to begin with.
I liken the paintings to iconography from Byzantine and Russian iconography. The idea there being the paintings they did — the icons — weren’t just a means of beautifying a space. They were points of intention and meditation. They were supposed to be looked at daily and used almost as a spiritual mirror for the individual looking at it so you could grow with it.
Rogue Buddha Gallery
Where: 357 13th Ave. NE
Next exhibit: “Out of the Pit,” featuring new work by Ivan Fortushniak