Exhibitions Dunedin


Jeffrey Harris: Paintings as Questions

The idea of the painting as question, or questioning, has long been central to Jeffrey Harris's art. That is not just the superficial—if nonetheless significant—observation that over the years numerous works have taken questions or implied questions as their titles. It is meant more to suggest something of the grammar and syntactic structure of his art.

Still, the immediate aesthetic problem of any interrogative art is the strict measure of control and definition which it requires. Clearly, a non-specific question is no question at all; and neither is one which attempts to embrace too much too quickly. Until about 1980, Harris was prone to expose himself to both these objections. He allowed himself, I think, too often to stand as the interrogator of his own paintings, and through the paintings, of his own inner world. In this respect, the earlier work could seem burdened - overburdened—by a grammar and syntax which exceeded its internal visual identity, and had rather more to do with the psychic identity of Jeffrey Harris himself.

Triptych 1983
oil on canvas,
1840 x 3590 mm.

But the grammar of Harris's work in the past three or four years has matured in increasing tautness and sureness. This is once more evident in the recent exhibition of three major new paintings at the Bosshard Galleries. The Galleries have performed a useful service in showing these works, and showing their contrast with a series of etchings executed in 1980: etchings which in their Byzantine allusiveness and the non-specific gestures of their titled questions (for instance, Why? and Which Way?) belong to a different, I think less convincing, mode of his work. (At the same time, it must be said, it is un- clear—anyway to me—whether Harris's etchings may appropriately be considered to constitute family relations of his paintings.) A theoretically seminal point in Harris's maturation as a painter was, I incline to think, the 1981 painting, again interrogatively titled, Was he of so little consequence? It would be presumptuous to say that the `he' in question was the intimate persona of self which had formerly seemed to absorb the painter. But certainly that work—and some others of the same year—seemed better to secure an important artistic motif fully within the syntax of the painting itself. I mean here that the now familiar bleak and dispirited, white-garbed and faceless onlooker figure projects a questioning relation inside the painting, rather than bringing a question to it. A related painting from the new exhibition is Untitled No 7 — a much reworked piece shown now for the first time but, interestingly enough, dated 1980/ 81. The same onlooker figure appears, ruminatively absorbed by the seductive invitations he collects in his perspective: again, a noose; again, a severational edge (in this case a floated sword), and the violently incarnadine liquid in a glass. The two other works of the exhibition represent, by contrast, the painterly change (or rediscovery) when Harris, around 1981, switched from his harshness of oil on hardboard to the greater richness and luminescence of oil on canvas. But both also represent, if in quite different ways, further gains in the development of a fixed grammar. In Untitled Triptych (1983), the onlooker figure disappears, even if the uneasy images of his perspectival collection do not. But the unifying quality of his gaze remains in the sense that the images are tentacularly linked and looped by the painting itself. It is further notable that the facelessness of the onlooker figure has found more precise measure in the series of faces which haunt the work. With some of the faces, blindedness has replaced the absence of sight in facelessness; but in one, totally surprising, instance there is an inflection lent to the painting by a highly determined physiognomy. The painting makes the insistent suggestion of a rebus, of a drive to the resolution of a question along a directed path of enigmatic meaning represented in a serial array of objects. And it is this sense of a rebus which provides a conviction of grammar and syntax otherwise lacking, or opaque, in the earlier allusiveness and associationality. A link between the triptychal painting and Floating Girl (1984) may be discerned in the physiognomic detail of the floating girl's face—and again one cannot help but be surprised by such emergence of this kind of expressive inflection in Harris's work. More pertinent though is the fact that in this work the grammar and syntax is wholly given over, or back, to the structures of painting itself. With Floating Girl, it is not so much a matter of the painting as a question, but of the question as painting. There are two respects in which this is achieved. First—and in this I find the fulfilment of a long, but not always sustained, conviction about Harris's deep sensitivities as a colourist Floating Girl is constructed in a modular chromatic architecture of non-complementary slabs of pigment. And this to the astonishing point of bringing to mind a quite alien mode of painting: for example, Ellsworth Kelly's nineteen-sixties exercises in chromatic minimalism. But with Harris, the push and pull of colour seems to form the tensity of syntax found in another manner in the idea of a rebus.

The second point concerns the severation of the head in the painting's image. As I've noted, the instruments and edges of severation are persistent in Harris's work; but until this one, the instruments and edges have merely been figured in paint. In Floating Girl, the instrument and edge is paint: a bloody shard of pigment violently cuts the head from the body. And that is the work of painting and colour: of the internality of the grammar of painting and not its employment in narrative address to the world. There is a final comment which may be made on Floating Girl. It concerns a curious patch of quasi-Florentine printed paper which sticks unobtrusively to one of the slabs of colour. In its baroque loops and whirls and turns it might well be thought to stand for the turbulent fecundity out of which Harris paints. But that this should now appear as a quiet punctuational reminder in-the work—rather than, as before, the work itself—is nicely indicative of the increasing depth and security of Harris's pictorial grammar.