Title: Formal Analysis of Navajo Wind Walker from the “Wind Walker Series” by Larry Harris.
Navajo Wind Walker, by Oklahoma artist Larry Harris, is a contemporary oil painting on canvas sized at 30” x 24”. The painting is undated and is part of a series of works with a Navajo theme by the same artist. This head and shoulders portrait—centered on the vertical axis—is a stylized abstraction of a pale and aged Native-American man wearing a non-descript beige hat and staring out pensively at the observer with his head tilted slightly to the right. The portrait fills the entire space of the canvas.
There are a number of remarkable elements in the form of this painting. The subject is created through composition of bold primary colors (dark red, yellow and beige, and blue) framing a black and white face. The portrait figure is given its main features through the juxtaposition of shapes and color rather than detailed outlines. Thick brush strokes fill in the large areas with rich colors. A dark red, featureless sky looms in the background. Similarly, only a few sparse elements are applied to the man’s clothing: a small gold element on the band of a beige Navajo brimmed hat, a rough outline of a collar and two gold, oval-shaped buttons.
The eyes are led along from the bottom by the soft line of the collar to the central element of the round pudgy face. Most of the linear details are reserved for the characteristics of the pale, white, visage, which is outlined in a chiaroscuro manner by the dark black shadow from the rim of the hat. Thick broad lips, a large and bulbous nose, and a round chin emerge from the darkness of shadow that flows into one mass with the man’s deep black shoulder-length hair. Two brilliant reflective spots for eyes pierce through the shadow giving the man a haunting, yet pensive, gaze.
The painting seems, at first glance, to be a simple representation of some unknown elderly person of Native origin. But, on deeper reflection it seems the artist has painted a character that could be a personification of wisdom. His elderly features and thoughtful expression seem to invite the observer to ask many questions as a tourist might to a local stranger. “Who are you man?” “Where are you from?” “What are you doing?” Or, “What have you seen with those eyes?” The artist may want to reminder us that Native people may be often seen in stereotypical ways, but are complex and have much to say if we take the time to ask them about their culture and lives.
In other ways, as well, the theme of Navajo culture comes through the work. Its style mirrors many of the design elements of traditional Navajo arts and crafts, including the use of bold colors, especially reds and blues, and the portrayal of subjects in two-dimensions.
In the final analysis, the painting is fashioned out of simple colors and lines, but in a bold way that emphasizes light and shadow to create a work that reflects the character of a man and his culture in a manner that makes the observer want to know more about the subject.