The Skull Orchard

Paintings by Jeffrey Harris


Self-driven, self-sourcing, Jeffrey Harris is the painter as the eye-man, the seer - and the painter as gladiator, wielding an expressionist brush. Always thinking about where that next brushstroke's going, he is the epitome of the painterly struggle against mere illustration. He asserts faith in the power of the single painted image: he is a painting fundamentalist.

Harris returned to live in Dunedin in 2000 after living in Melbourne for nearly 15 years. He remains a painting prodigy, getting off to a flying start at the age of 20 in 1969 with an acclaimed show in the Otago Museum foyer. A self-taught primitive, he's also the possessor of a tremendous natural facility - a virtuosity - that has necessitated a constant struggle to resist glibness. He ambushes his tendency to self- parody and art historical pastiche by all available means - disrupting the formulaic, challenging evident personal mannerisms, incorporating elements of chance, moving from expressionism to abstract expressionism and then moving again to a more knowing, a more cagey expressionism: scavenging and remaking.

Tolerance or Destruction 1988
Oil on board 1225 x 1225 mm.

He's a big game hunter, stalking the primal emotions, seeking to render them down, lay them bare. An omnivorous visual autodidact, he takes other artists' insights and incorporates them into his own, always on the look-out for vehicles able to carry the heavy freight of emotion he's seeking to express. As an attentive student of the great masters, he presents his serial paintings both as acts of homage and as ventures in self-affirmation. He is one of New Zealand's most effective exponents of art historical quotation and appropriation; and a dab hand at trying to get paint to do everything paint can do, always winding the visual tension up tight.

His early works - late '60s, early '70s - twanged with enigmatic fragments of narrative. Paintings, pastels, drawings gripped by graphomania (lots of fine detail) - they all depicted human figures, along with angels and other wraiths, populating various landscapes based loosely on Banks Peninsula, North Otago, Dunedin, or Otago Peninsula. He had the knack of collaging together syncopated rhythms and rhymes of line and colour. He was an uninhibited, rather manic colourist, employing amped-up, acidulous hues. His pastels glowed with variations on lilac; his paintings were a gaudy fireworks, often based on the colour orange. This is a direct connection to two of his mentors: orange was a favourite colour of both Edvard Munch and Francis Bacon.

Untitled 1993
Oil on board 915 x 1220 mm.

Harris quickly built up an array of symbols taken from a bewildering variety of source material into a complex ideology. While his autobiographical imagery remained elusive in precise meaning, the bruised colouring he used was pure sensation, conveying the tenor of emotional biography.

Harris's spectacular career trajectory continued into the 1980s, seeming to burn on pure oxygen, crash-or-crash-through style. Love and death and memory were the storylines, these narratives enacted by figures outlined in thick colour and standing as stiff as wood carvings of the northern European variety, while their outdoor or half-indoor-half- outdoor settings blazed with red, orange, yellow and viridian green. These colours were essentially flat panels of paint juxtaposed together. Harris also collaged in faux-finishes, imitating veneers and fabrics, and sometimes actually using fabrics, such as fake orange fur, to paint on. Harris the fairground magician also always seemed to have severed heads floating, gouts of blood spraying, wavy snakes writhing and hypodermic syringes quivering-all painted with enough spellbinding intensity to keep you hypnotically gazing.

In the '80s Harris began to travel - Japan, Europe, the United States - cramming in visits to art galleries. In 1986 he was artist-in-residence at Victoria College in Prahran, Melbourne and exhibited in Melbourne, and the following year he moved there from Dunedin, where he'd lived since moving down from Christchurch in 1969. The shift was marked by a gradual transition in painting style. Though Harris paints quickly, imagery evolves slowly. One constant image has been a man and a woman side by side in some sort of intense relationship. In Melbourne these dewy romantic scenarios began drying out-the vivid colour began browning out-and Harris found himself removing the figurative arabesque from his work. His magpie sensibility turned from intense interest in the obsessions of, say, Ron Kitaj and Max Beckmann to intense interest in those of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Three Heads 1999
Oil on linen, 720 x 615 mm.

If his early art had been depthless, strongly influenced by the flatness of the reproductions available in art publications in New Zealand, exposure to a wealth of real paintings in Melbourne galleries challenged such isolationist regionalism. Now located in a cosmopolitan city and nearing 40, Harris began to explore multiple new directions.

First he discarded his former painting technique as too frivolous-as self-indulgent and repetitive. Painting himself into his location, he began concentrating on building up textures, taking as his subject tracts of Victoria's countryside. These landscape paintings are mostly sombre skyscapes, their great cloudbanks seen at sunset are dark and moody, and lit up by flashes of yellow ochre or red sienna, the promise of bushfires in the air. And if this sequence of long views helped him box the compass of wide-open Australian distances, a first series of black-and-white paintings, launched in the early '90s, seemed intent on plumbing the labyrinth of urban Melbourne, in all its ground-hugging, flat-earthed density.

Other experiments continued in subdued colour, but at the centre were raw-boned black and white paintings, solid as sculptures, the paint slathered on as if by a plasterer and full of a silvery, mournful light. The black was painted on in the shape of blunt hieroglyphs and suggestive of a rugged architecture: massive keys, slab doorways, factory gates, warehouse windows. All untitled, and at first small, these paintings were exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney in 1993 and 1994. Severe, dramatic, with a suggestion of pressure locked in beneath the plasma of the white paint and their scaffolding of black, these paintings have an almost tactile presence.

Head Looking Up 2001
Oil on linen, 1527 x 970 mm.

This was part one of an abstract phase that lasted most of the '90s and which also found expression in big charcoal drawings-carbon splinters and grit crunched deep into thick sheets of paper, like, as one impressed Australian reviewer said 'gouge-marks': all rough stacks of horizontal or vertical black stripes. Employing the codes of abstraction with bravura skill, here was art as anti-narrative, as just substance and gesture. Harris was looking hard at the work of a number of Australian gestural gurus with a base in the instinctive: Tony Tuckson, Ian Fairweather, and Aboriginal painters from the Kimberley region in the far North.

The second episode in this reductive black-and-white phase flowed from the first, and these works, too, were showcased in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane dealer galleries. By now Harris's loaded brush, relentlessly jabbing - all swish-swash, switch-swatch - had begun constructing webbings of broad paintstrokes that regularly congested into clotted monochrome, into churned paddocks of pigment that were suggestive of excavations, as if the artist imagined himself digging into the foundations of the city beneath his feet. This middle-phase work, both rawly aggressive and sensitively vulnerable, was lunging and warm-blooded, but also turgid. The painter was moving on the canvas as if punch-drunk, grinding towards stasis amongst middens of spent oil- tubes and slag-heaps of oil-paint. We cannot decode these palimpsests: they resemble ashpits, dead embers.

Then, slogging away, the painter entered the third and final phase so far of this black-and-white adventure. New large paintings exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney in 1997 and 1998,and in Auckland in 1998 at the Oedipus Rex Gallery, show the breakthrough. Here, cascades of white paint foam and froth over black. Rhythmic sweeps of paint, chalky and powdered or bituminous and oozing, create surfaces that seem luminous and alive. Hallelujah! The paintings have now achieved that analogue to the organic world that he was seeking, evoking the gravity, the weighty density of the earth with true lyricism: tree-bark and clouds and bubbles in sea-water, even Melbourne street scenes in spring rain: in these last perhaps, we can just make out humanoid stick figures, glancingly reminiscent of the latter-day work of Alan Pearson. But, having rendered his abstractions eloquent, the artist promptly moves on: by the late '90s Harris has begun the swing back toward figuration, towards the human form.

Dream 2001
Oil on linen, 2134 x 1625 mm.

Yet really the human form had never quite gone away; it waited in the wings as it were, and figurative mannerisms are in the foreground of a series of late '90s aquatint prints, where out of blobby black ink a kind of larrikin grotesqueness emerges, as heads develop eyeballs on stalks that then turn into lightbulbs, and penises slither across the floor like inch-worms. It's possible to see here the influence of the early faux-naive work of Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan.

Harris is a kind of professor of painting: he absorbs styles and then quotes from them. In the late '90s he was also quoting from Peter Booth, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester-timeless Melbourne Gothic expressionists-as he focused on the totem of the human head, subject of the exhibition States of Being, shown at the Tinakori Gallery in Wellington in early 2000. Another impetus for renewe'd interest in the human was an image that developed on the back wall of his studio between 1992 and 1998 as Harris cleaned his brush by absently wiping strokes of paint against the wall: an ectoplasmic bulbous head, mask-like and of enormous size, began to make itself apparent.

States of Being was the last major show Harris completed in Australia before returning to New Zealand. It revealed a new mastery of modelling and of granular colour tones. These have a vaporous, misty quality yet also, paradoxically possess the hard sheen of metal. And these helmets of heads have complex expressions: at once haunted, calculating, hostile, sneering, vulnerable and fearful. The heads swivel to stare at us with disturbing sardonic toughness, with malevolence and defiance. Their leached skin tones are an unhealthy grey relieved by an unhealthy red: a man has the red nose of a clown or drunk, while on the skull-like faces of various women dark orange lipstick clings to slug-like lips. If there is poetry here, it is more Baudelaire than Rilke.

Ensconced in his Dunedin studio for about a year now, Harris has been painting small abstract landscapes in colour, dominated by a reductive black cross or two. But mostly he has been refining the imagery that appeared in States of Being, moving further into exemplification of alienation, emptiness and trauma: zeroing in on the eye and on the skull beneath the skin. His skulls are like boulders implying endurance, or perhaps just death, while their huge black eyesockets suggest they have been staring into the abyss. His painting studio is in fact a skull orchard, hung with bleached or beached skulls which seem to float in front of bonfires of red and orange. His colour scheme here has returned to the great orangeade fiesta of the late '70s/early '80s, only now these orange grounds simmer with hellish heat rather , than glimmer with a paradisial glow. They are glaring, demonic, netherworld images, mouths open in a silent cry. In an accompanying group of paintings we see heads with spikes driven into their eyes: a prime surrealist image (from Bunuel to Bataille), deriving from Freud and the Greek tragedies. Another painting shows an eye nailed to a rough wooden cross: an allegory for sight and also for the self, the suffering ego. More trauma for the fleshy eye: plucked from its socket it becomes an ashen and bone-white cartoon eye nervously staring around: squeaking, gibbering, pressurised.

And still with the head as skull, Harris fetishises it further, inflating it like a balloon so it distorts into a staring bubble, into a gloopy cartoon ghost. Or he pulls at the skull, distending bits of it into flaps of loose grey skin like long, elasticised earlobes, or he shapes into electrical tubing and adds a biomorphic body, as blobbly as a Teletubby, those Ab-Ex lessons put to good use. So you turn to take another look at that stressed-out white eyeball looking up, awaiting the arrival of the furies, the anxiety of its act of looking circling it endlessly.