Canadian painter Peter Harris is used to having his quiet urban landscape paintings compared to Edward Hopper. There’s the fact that Harris’s paintings all depict a city at night, as many of Hopper’s works— most famously, Nighthawks—also did. Then there’s a similar sense of voyeurism; in Harris’s latest series, for example, Toronto’s generic office buildings, still lit up after hours, invite the viewer to peer in.
Look in close enough and you’ll see another sign of Hopper–this one a bit more literal. Inside each of the spare, glass-clad offices is an Edward Hopper painting, hanging inconspicuously as wall decor for the nondescript lobby or storefront. The images that make up Harris’s Evenings With Hopper series, on view at Toronto’s Mira Godard Gallery starting April 29, pay a subtle homage to one of the earliest and most famous painters to highlight the beauty and mundanity of urban life.
Harris has built a career on painting such scenes, focusing on banal architecture and abandoned corners of the city; he often goes out into his hometown of Toronto at night to capture these moments at their stillest. His paintings are empty of people, and devoid of action. He loves to paint buildings, but only the ones that you wouldn’t glance twice at if you passed them on the street. Decades of this practice have led him to get to know the urban landscape painters who came before him, which in turn led him to Hopper.
Harris began incorporating Hopper’s paintings into his own as a tribute, but rather than a comment on the similarities of the two, he was most interested in exploring the differences between their work–and the time periods depicted in their work–that emerged with each composition. “I wanted to show a continuation of urban landscape painting, but also to look at people’s relationship to city living and how it’s changed,” he says. “In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, when Hopper was making his work, he was capturing an isolated feeling and an alienated feeling that people were feeling really strongly at the time. We were becoming more of an urbanized country, in U.S. and in Canada. But people are much more comfortable in cities now, and it has become more normalized.”
Harris always starts his process by going out to photograph the city at night, hunting for office buildings that appear generic in the day time but he feels could be transformed into something beautiful in his nighttime landscapes. About halfway through adapting the photograph to a painting, he decides which Hopper painting will complete the scene, focusing on what it will add to the piece, either compositionally or emotionally. Harris sees the human subjects in Hopper’s paintings a complement to the lack of people in his. “Hopper is known for the figures in his work, and that’s where the emotional content often comes from,” he says. “He’s portraying a mood through human activity and I’m portraying a mood through the spaces themselves. Sometimes that [mood] might be the connecting point.”
Whatever the differences or similarities between the two painters, Hopper’s urban paintings set a precedence for Harris’s paintings—and this work is a kind of “thank you” for that.
“For centuries we thought that the natural landscape was the only one worth documenting,” he says. “But people live in cities—more people now than ever before. The stuff around us and what we see every day, that is what we should be reflecting on.”