James Harney is the designer behind Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the stage backdrop for the opera of the same name. It is currently on show in the gallery until December 21. James is also a resident artist at 107. We spoke to him about the work, his influences, and designing for theatre.
Interview Amy Willing / Images James Harney
Hi James, let’s start big: who are you?
I’m a Sydney based graphic designer and artist. I’ve been practicing on and off professionally in the arts for about fifteen years now. I studied at UNSW Art and Design (COFA), had commercial representation for a couple of years after university, then went on to study graphic design at Enmore. I now work full time as a designer.
Can you tell us a little bit about the work?
The work was commissioned by Leonie Cambage as the staging backdrop for a performance at the Canberra International Music Festival. It is the third staging backdrop mural/painting we have worked together on. It’s made up of six large panels, each 1 x 2.4m.
Your mural was created for the opera Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda – The Battle of Tancredi & Clorinda – written in the 17th century. Can you explain some of the scenes we see here?
The panels are read left to right. The first panel depicts a dual haloed narrator introducing Tancredi and Clorinda represented as swords. Above them a valknut set as a mountain and a barbed wire barrier in a pool of blood set the scene for battle. Panels two and three represent the first duel between Tancredi and Clorinda, the sweeping of their swords drawn in blue. In panels four and five the battle intensifies and the players are drawn into close combat. Panel six is the death scene, again Tancredi is represented as a sword.
How do you go about working in such large scale? Can you describe your process?
I generally listen or read through the materials provided, from there I react with drawings and imagery found on the net. I then make a mockup in photoshop. Depending on how complex the mockup is I will either project the image or paint free, for this work I painted it free hand.
Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda was written over 300 years ago, yet your minimal lines and large blocks of colour bring a very modern feel to the story. Was this something you were conscious of while you were creating it?
Not particularly, in retrospect I would of liked to have referenced more historical imagery and processes. I really just applied my style. What I was concerned about was how the paint was applied, that the composition, movement, colour and symbols reflected the moods of each of the scenes in the opera.
Do you have a favourite piece of theatre that you would like to design the set for, and if so why?
I’m not much of a theatre goer anymore, although in my twenties I was fortunate to be part of a thriving performance art and theatre scene in Sydney. This exposed me to many different staging and set productions.
What comes to mind most clearly would be working within the kabuki framework. After visits to the newly refurbished Kabukiza in Ginza, I was very much inspired by the sets, colouring and patterning and ingenious contraptions used to create movement.
Where can people see more of your work?
See it for yourself! Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda is on show in the gallery until December 21. Gallery hours: 11am – 7pm, Tues – Sun.