Charley Harper Art at SB Museum of Natural History

By Robert Bernstein

I don’t celebrate Christmas or Festivus or Saturnalia or any of the usual end of year holidays. But I use that time to send cards to some of my family and friends to stay in touch. And some of my favorite card art was created by Charley Harper.

Almost too late, I found out that the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is having a Charley Harper art exhibit that ends September 10!

Merlie and I headed over there on Labor Day and the Museum was packed with visitors. It took a bit of help from the staff to guide us to the exhibit entrance:

Sure enough, the exhibit included a variety of Harper’s art in a wide variety of forms. Including some of my favorite note cards as you can see on the lower shelf of this display case.

Harper was born in 1922, but to me his art has a very futuristic look to it. Merlie is an artist and she didn’t see what was so amazing about it. She prides herself in mixing subtle tones of paint and Harper’s colors seem so flat and lacking in subtlety.

But I have a background in the psychology of perception and also took some art history classes in college. What appears simple is the result of great genius. Think of the simplicity of a work by Picasso, using just a few lines. Such artists remove almost everything, leaving just enough for your visual system to re-create the complexity of a scene.

Your visual system not only fills in details that are “not there”. Your visual system also fills in subtle gradations of color that are “not there”. Look at this tiger face as a perfect example. Sure, there are “really” only a few gradations of color. But they are just the right ones in just the right places to cause you to see so much more than what is in front of you.

The world itself is full of simple geometry, perfectly suited to Harper’s style. Merlie and I were just in Iceland and we were fortunate to see puffins. Our Icelandic guide could not understand why we visitors found puffins so interesting. They were very ordinary to her. Part of it is the absurdly overdone geometry, captured so perfectly here by Harper.

Harper didn’t just paint nature. He really cared about nature and became a conservationist.

It is worth looking at the titles for each piece. There is some wonderful humor there. For example, this one has the title “Serengeti Spaghetti”.

This one is “Armaditto”.

Some of his humor is quite ghoulish. This one of post-mating praying mantises is called “Wedding Feast”.

There is much more to this exhibit and I don’t want to overshare here. The exhibit also includes art by his wife Edie Harper. Please get over to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History before this exhibit goes away! Last day is Sunday September 10!

For more information about the exhibit:

And here is the official Charley Harper web site:


Written by sbrobert

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