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Jane Harris: New Painting

Jane Harris’s studio is in an old coach house in Beckenham, a short thirty-five-minute train ride from London’s Charing Cross Station.  The artist has occupied this space since the early 1980s, a period that has witnessed the development of a remarkable body of work that defies easy categorization.  Relating to, but standing distinctly separate from Modernist painting styles such as Color Field, geometric abstraction, monochrome, and Op, Harris has curiously reinvigorated all of the above via a deep connection with traditions of the sublime in the West—from Byzantine Art to Abstract Impressionism.

Pinned to the wall beneath the large window in Harris’s studio are two postcard images: Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888), and from the studio of Fra Angelico, Angel in Adoration (c. 1435).  Placed by Harris out of respect for the two artists’ work, their adjacency offers hints of the influences that have led to the artist’s consistent ability to entertain conflicting ideas and forces.  Van Gogh’s paintings are known for their intense, often vertiginous, psychological space, while Fra Angelico’s work exhibits an extremely controlled, pious mysticism.  These extremes define the limits of the transcendental in art, and their collision in Harris’s studio offers some explanation for the wildly-compelling paintings that are created there.

Harris, at least on the surface, seems to be primarily a formalist.  Each painting is a controlled experiment limited to a tightly prescribed geometry of elliptical form that utilizes only two colors, painted with a uniform pattern of parallel brush marks.  The unity of the surface is not only a result of the deliberate paint application, but of the fact that each painting is usually made with two different widths of brush—one for the interior of the elliptical shape(s) and one for the surrounding area.  Each large elliptical form is usually divided into quadrants by scalloping the circumference with smaller ellipses—either penetrating the edge or radiating outward from it.  The small satellite ellipses are delineated by tightly-concentric brush strokes, which stand out from the uniform fields surrounding them.  These formal structures employed by Harris indicate a certain discipline, especially of mind.  What is not readily apparent is the physical discipline: each painting has a minimum of five layers of oil paint, and because each continuous area of parallel stokes is applied “wet on wet,” each area needs to be applied in one session.  For a large painting, such as Divine, this translates into sixteen contiguous hours of paint application!  But just as all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, Harris has figured a way to mitigate the drudgery: color!

If the compositional structure of Harris’s paintings is subject to harsh, self-imposed rules, the use of color is anything but.  The artist’s approach to color is subjective, open, and most surprisingly based in daily, personal observation.  This is where the purely “abstract” read of Harris’s work breaks down: these paintings, for all their formal bluster, are richly informed by the lived, physical world of the senses.  For example, the artist’s new palette of iridescent, metallic color was influenced by the current trend for opalescent finishes on automobiles.  Harris describes “catching a glimpse of the metallic flash of two cars driving past each other”  in the reverent tone that Monet might have used to describe the morning light on the façade of a cathedral.  In several earlier paintings, such as Cul Noir (1999), Harris employed color like make-up, transforming her rigorous geometry into disquieting biomorphic representation.  It seems the carefully-drawn elliptical enclosures of these paintings are akin to architecture, providing Harris a structured arena to safely release Dionysian excess.  As Harris has stated, “drawing allows the painting to exist.”

It is all very well to describe these paintings, or even to look at their printed reproductions, but it is something else altogether to stand in front of one.  It is only when directly confronting a painting such as Light Resister that all of Harris’s devices “click,” creating an experience far greater than the sum of the parts.  In the flesh, the formal, drawn elements activate both color and depth perception in ways that can only be poorly explained.  Harris’s glossy, precise brush marks control the reflection of ambient light analogous to the way the surface of a body of water owes its character to the orientation of wavelets in relationship to the sun.  This control of reflectivity has as a primary consequence the puzzling effect of turning the artist’s two-color palette into four colors.  This effect is magnified as one moves through the space in front of a painting: colors lighten or darken and the figure-ground relationship between the elliptical forms and the space both inside and outside of them shifts.  Shapes that at one moment appeared to be flat and diagrammatic suddenly turn into craters; ellipses detach from the surface, shimmer, then hover UFO-like in space.  What at one moment was achingly beautiful suddenly becomes oddly disorienting.

The captivating nature of Harris’s work, however, doesn’t entirely lie in formal, purely painterly concerns.  As abstract as these paintings are, there is something strongly figurative about their nature. It is perhaps not surprising that the origin of Harris’s current work is rooted in both figuration and ornament.  “The elliptical form first appeared during the late eighties, when I was still doing paintings based on formal gardens,” Harris has stated.  “These would often be of the fountains and pools used for ornament within the garden design.”   The conception of the formal garden itself is analogous with Harris’s methodology: carefully delineated forms, based in geometry (ellipses), that are constructed as vehicles for the ordering and display of that which is most visually sensuous and romantic in nature (color and light).  But gardens are rarely as unsettling as Harris’s paintings, a fact that raises questions about other, more complex associations.

As quirky as Harris’s elliptical forms are, they clearly function as framing devices that give form to both color and light.  Others have commented on the ways that the artist’s ellipses resemble picture frames.   But I would like to propose that their psychological potency comes from the echo of a very specific framing reference—that of the mirror.  On my bookshelf, gathering dust, is World Mirrors: 1650-1900, an exhaustive survey written by furniture historian Graham Child.   What is somewhat misleading about its title is quickly apparent on flipping through the first dozen pages: it is a history of mirror frames, not of mirrors themselves.  For what is a mirror?  Yes, certainly a silvered, highly reflective piece of glass, but more importantly, a singular category of object that has both physical and virtual reality.  Mirrors are devices which allow us to see ourselves, but they are also spatial portals, punching holes through walls, multiplying space, reflecting light in precise and extremely controlled ways.  There is a rich history of the depiction of the mirror in Western painting since the Renaissance (think of Van Eyck, Velázquez, and Magritte), and Harris’s paintings continue this dialogue by not simply representing mirrors, but by embodying their abstract essence.

In the early 1970s, Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein pushed his notational representation as far as it could go in his series of paintings and prints of mirrors.  Lichtenstein’s mirrors, like Harris’s paintings, entertain a certain tension between representation and abstraction.  If a viewer who is not familiar with Lichtenstein’s work encounters one of his mirrors, there is a good chance the first reading will be simply as geometric abstraction—alternating, choppy bands of color with half-tone dot gradations.  Interpreting any mirrored surface (or a picture of a mirrored surface) as a representation of something real elsewhere requires sophisticated cognition,  and Lichtenstein reduces representational reflection to its quintessence—a bare-bones paraphrase of what a mirror’s surface embodies in our mind’s eye. Both Lichtenstein and Harris present the gradation of light as the primary abstract quality of a mirror, but achieve it in completely different ways.  Lichtenstein pictorializes it with half-tone dots while Harris, with her reflection-controlling brushstrokes, allows us to actually experience it as a phenomenon in front of our eyes.  As if gradation isn’t enough to reinforce the idea of mirroring, both artists have presented us with works where the mirror-form itself is doubled, reiterating the doubling that mirrors create.  Thinking back on the influences that led Harris to begin using elliptical forms, it is worth remembering that reflection is not confined to mirrors.  One of the most important principles in the grammar of ornament is bilateral symmetry, or, as it is most commonly referred to, mirroring.

Harris has chosen to create paintings where surface reflection is a critical part of the viewing experience.  This challenges the normal notion that any glare on the surface of a painting is distractive, interrupting the act of truly “seeing” the work.  But as was mentioned previously, reflection directs our attention elsewhere, frequently referring to something out of sight.  Harris’s shine subtly directs us to look over our shoulder to consider what is usually forgotten: the source of light.  It is not just the viewer’s position in relation to the painting that determines the quality of what is perceived, but also the relative position of illumination.  The painting expands itself out into space, embracing the ambient light, playing with it through the intervention of Harris’s dazzling color and resolute composition.

In Europe, the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance witnessed the abandonment of tempera and fresco for the new medium of oil paint.  Taking Willem de Kooning’s statement that “oil paint was invented in order to paint flesh” one step further, it is equally as clear that oil paint also enabled artists to portray light with a new verisimilitude.  Van Eyck’s gleams and reflections, as well as Vermeer’s optical highlights, would not have been possible without the fluidity and gloss of oil.  Harris’s paintings, however, turn traditional expectations of oil paint upside down. Instead of picturing light, the artist’s paintings, in the manner of a Byzantine icon, condense and refine illumination, somehow making it better.  Harris’s version of the sublime is a curious one, resembling more the sexy aura of a highly polished Jaguar than that of a brilliant sunset.  Informed by the history of painting, yet not nostalgic for it, Harris’s paintings tease the viewer by spectacularly catching the eye and then confounding the mind.

Both Jane Harris and the Museum are grateful for the support she received during her sabbatical from Goldsmiths College, which allowed the works in this exhibition to be created.  The Arts & Humanities Research Council, which funds postgraduate training and research in the arts and humanities in Britain, and the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation were both instrumental in allowing the artist unfettered time in her studio.  The Aldrich is grateful to Martin Hebert for contributing his thoughtful essay, which wonderfully informs Harris’s recent endeavors.  Special thanks to the Museum’s Kristina Critchlow and Amy Grabowski for ably organizing this publication.  

- Richard Klein, director of exhibitions