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Out There | Jane Harris

By Charles Darwent, April 2018

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

To most of the world, Josef Albers is a painter of squares. And with good reason. For the last quarter-century of his long life, starting at the age of sixty-two, Albers worked on the series that would come to define him: Homages to the Square, of which more than two thousand paintings and many more prints survive. And yet Albers himself did not agree with the popular view of him as high priest of the quadrilateral. “I am not paying ‘homage to the square’!”, he spluttered, exasperated, twenty years into the series. “It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about colour in.”(1)

Night Ride, 2017, oil on wood, 50 x 50 cm

I recount this in part because Jane Harris claims Albers as one of the chief influences in her own art, and because she, too, has become closely associated with a single geometric form: the ellipse (2). For nearly thirty years now – longer than Albers and his squares – Harris has paid homage to the ellipse, or at least has seemed to. Works as disparate in time and appearance as Thrill (2006) and Night Ride (2017) are linked in their use of the form. As with Albers, though, this does not reflect a quixotic fondness on Harris’s part for a random shape. For her, too, geometric form is only a means to an end; a control by which she can measure her own process, and expand on it.

I do not mean to labour the Harris-Albers analogy, for they are very different artists, as well, sometimes, as rather similar ones. But it is perhaps worth comparing the paths by which they arrived at their respective geometries. For Albers, the square represented anti-nature. He believed, when he started to work with them, that squares did not occur naturally. When he discovered, too late, that they did – in salt crystals, for example – he took typical delight in having proved himself wrong. Albers was the foe of abstraction, reasoning that if an image was abstract, there had to have been a primum movens from which it was abstracted. This opened any subsequent artwork to a historical reading, which he disliked. Harris, quite differently, arrived at the ellipse by a clear process of history and refinement. Yet she, too, abjures the word ‘abstract’ as applied to her work, and rightly so. Whatever the process that led her to the ellipse, it became, long ago, its own first principle. All her work since that time has been ahistorical, a distillation only of itself.

Holding Back, 2017, oil on linen, 58 x 64 cm

Turning Points, 2017, oil on wood, 40 x 40 cm

Ellipses, unlike squares, lend themselves readily to allusion. A square is, always and irrevocably, a square; an ellipse may be long and etiolated, like a finger, or flat and globular like a bun. The descriptors for its various possible states, like the states themselves, tend to the diurnal and organic. Squares look like squares; ellipses look like things – heads, wineglasses, grapes, genitals. Often, the form of Harris’s ellipses is dictated by the proportion of the paintings in which they appear: the long narrowness of a series of canvases she made in in 2015-16 shaped them as petals, for example. How we apprehend these allusive forms – I think ‘read’ would be the wrong word – is not solely reliant on their shape, however. In these same works, Harris’s use of an apparently Giottoesque palette lent her ellipses the feel of human heads engaged in a sacra conversazione. And yet the dialogue between form and colour in these works was rather more complex than that. Seen out of context, Harris’s colours were not those of the quattrocento at all. It was the form of her ellipses that had made them so.

Which is to say that Harris is arguably a history painter, although the history she paints is not of emperors and states but of the evolution of her own eye. In the 2017 works, the long, unbroken, brush-marked line with which she edged her forms played multiple roles. It held the composition together; its fluctuations of direction and light created a figure-ground ambiguity that at times pushed the surrounded image forward and then, at the next turn, pushed it back again. As well as these, though, the line suggested the movement of Harris’s own hand, the process of the painting’s making and the time taken to make it. If there is a past in Harris’s work, there is always a concomitant future: the possibility of change, of what-comes-next. Seen en masse, her images often have the look of primitive life forms edged with pseudopods, Harris’s ambiguous line making them hover over the painted grounds below. Visually and historically, the images feel motile, anxious to get on, to evolve.

Letting Slip (Four Small Blasts) (Quadriptych), 2017, oil on wood, 80 x 80cm

And so they have. At first glance, her latest series of work has little to do with the last. Where those paintings felt somehow classical, new ones such as Turning Point (2017) feel almost cartoonish. The central figure in the painting seems to float in shallow water, casting a shadow on the surface below. Letting Slip (Four Small Blasts) (2017) calls Lichtenstein’s Whaam! inevitably to mind, although the four-part work is less Pop-ish than a clever study in mutability. Harris is, pre-eminently, a colourist. Her gentle rotation, across the quadriptych, of the central ellipse of her paintings turns the figures minimally to left and right. The fringe of ellipses around the edges of these become explosion marks, like a cartoon. But it is the pulse of the red centres of the works, two muted and two vibrant, that animates them, sets them in motion. Our eyes read colour as movement; an alchemy Josef Albers would have understood only too well.

1. Neil Welliver, ‘Albers on Albers’, Art News 64, no. 9, January 1966, p. 69.

2. For Harris on Albers, see, for example, interview between Ben Gooding and Jane Harris for Saturation Point, May 2017.

(Text above taken from the exhibition catalogue for Jane Harris’s exhibition OUT THERE at the Eagle Gallery, London.)