Jeffery Harris Interview

by Andrew Clark first published in Auction N˚6 catalogue, 9th Aug 2017

AC: You’ve spoken in the past (in the 1983 “Profiles” TV documentary) about how your paintings are “just a glimpse of what the whole thing is all about.” I took this to mean that your practice of thinking about and making images is an extensive, ongoing process, of which paintings are only one possible expression—how does drawing fit into this larger process of artistic engagement?

 

JH: Paintings are just one component of a whole. Drawing is another component, photography another. Film and writing are others. Each of these are basically separate activities that usually do not overlap or interact. It is just up to me as to which of these activities I wish to focus on and give my attention to, at any particular time. One component can become dominant and lead to the exclusion of other activities, sometimes for years. This has happened recently with painting. When I was very young, drawing became my way of expressing myself or my way of constructing messages or images. I became very fluent at drawing, very skilful and drawing came naturally. When I began to paint, many years later, I found this new (to me) medium difficult at times. That is why many of the major and most important works of mine from the early- to mid-seventies were drawings. Drawing in my body of work has always been separate from painting. The drawings rarely have any equivalent in painting. They stand alone as a separate way of working, a separate way of looking and as a separate body of images. In many ways, I am the opposite of McCahon, who said, “There is only one direction.” For me there are many, possibly too many, directions: too many choices, too many ways of working. It is often only through extreme discipline that I can stay on one path. In this seemingly too-short life, there seem to be only glimpses of what could be possible and of what one might achieve.

AC: It’s interesting that you consider your drawings from the 1970s to be amongst your major works from that period. Can you talk about what advantages and disadvantages drawing has compared to painting, and why you think these particular works were so successful?

 

JH: I consider some of my drawings from the 1970s to be major works, in so far as they are fully developed and worked out as individual finished artworks. During this period, I was more skilful and able to achieve greater detail and fineness of touch and precision in drawing than I was in painting, a medium that, at the time, I was less technically in command of. Some of the larger drawings from the early 1970s of a visionary nature, featuring floating angels, lovers and other figures (these are mainly from 1970–71, and done in Dunedin) and the drawings from the mid-seventies of family groups or self-portraits with immediate family members, that feature very detailed landscape drawing (which were done while living on Banks Peninsula), I consider amongst the most important and accomplished work I have ever done. They are often superior to my paintings of that period, because of my technical ability to convey through drawing images that have a very focused and intense presence. These major works are accompanied by many smaller drawings (mainly from 1970–71) that are often taken from photographic sources or are drawings from life (many of them of Joanna Paul), as well as crucifixions, scenes of violence, lovers, floating figures, and other visionary scenes. I consider these smaller drawings also finished works, independent and separate from the paintings I was doing at that time. Many of the smaller drawings feature the same qualities (sharpness of line, the use of space and gesture, the shading and positioning of figures), that occur in the larger works. Some of the larger drawings were worked on over a period of up to five days, often working at night.

AC: Although you make it clear that your drawings are to be considered as a separate body of work from the paintings, are there connections or parallels between the two? And if so, what can we learn about the paintings from the drawings (and vice versa)?

 

JH: I don’t know that there are many connections or parallels between the paintings and drawings. At least not from the seventies (which is what we are mainly talking about here). I think that with the abstract works of the nineties, there is more interaction, in that the drawings from that time were often forerunners or ways into the paintings. They worked more in tandem in exploring form and space, but the early works are really, I feel, two separate bodies of work, with the drawings often being ahead in achievement and clarity. The seventies paintings are often rougher and more immediate, as opposed to the drawings, which are more sophisticated and refined.

AC: In the past you have also discussed the idea of a “condensation of experience”—that is, the idea that human life leaves a trace on the landscape, on the city and so on. This is a lovely metaphor—it makes me think of time as a stratum, and you as an archaeologist digging through the reside of all those years. Could you talk specifically about how your painting practice relates to this idea of accumulated time?

 

JH: There is a strong element of revisiting the past in my work, which now even means encompassing my own past. The need to go back and scavenge through what has gone before and to make it new, to bring it into the present, to bring it into the light, is a strong impulse and desire. To try to make something permanent and lasting from the materials, objects and images thrown up by previous civilisations is probably foolhardy and, in the present age, probably irrational, but I have a strong desire to do so—to use painting to make something lasting. It feels as though my contribution, at the end of civilisations, is to make of their ruins and of what is left something to see and to hold on to: something constructed from the past that we can see now as fresh, vital and new.

AC: You say that you feel that your work takes place at the “end of civilisations.” This is a striking idea—can you expand a little on what you mean? Are you speaking specifically about the civilisations of the past (ancient Egypt? Rome?), or do you see yourself as operating in some sense after (or beyond?) contemporary civilisation?

 

JH: By the end of civilisations, I mean my work comes after. It is a reflection, a commentary, a mediation on what has gone before, on civilisations that have passed and that I pay homage to, such as the Renaissance, Mannerism, the Baroque. I know these are considered art movements, but they are part of a Western civilisation that I feel has passed. So: do I think that Western civilisation is over, that painting is basically finished or has, anyway, lost its power to impact upon our lives? What is the role of painting now? It certainly plays a diminished role in contemporary art practice. Have the great moments of painting passed? Is my painting a celebration, an elegy, for what is gone? Is my work a sort of end-page? A final summation . . . of a particular type of NZ painting, or Western European painting . . . a closing statement, one of looking back in wonderment and grief?

AC: I’m interested in the part of your working process that involves (or involved?) the collection and arrangement of images—I love the shots in the ’83 documentary that show your studio, and the piles of photographs, newspapers, magazines, etc. How does your practice negotiate the divide between photography and painting, and what role does drawing play in negotiating this area?

 

JH: From about 1967 onwards I began collecting many, many images. Hundreds and hundreds of photographs that I cut from magazines and newspapers. Some of these powerful images found their way into my painting. Images of war, sex, violence. Images of politicians, celebrities, artists. Images of poverty and the degradation of life. Images of artworks. I was also drawn to images of family groups and figures alone in the landscape. While most of these images, if they were used at all, were reworked into paintings, a few did end up as source material for actual finished drawings. The hunger, the need to collect all these images, was strong. For many years, they acted as a sort of encyclopaedia, a source of knowledge, a source of imagery. Over the years, the need to collect more and new images subsided, until it was only the image that was specifically going to be used in a painting that was collected. And as time went on these usually became only photographs of people, to be used most often as the basis for a portrait. Photography was always strong: photographs in their own right, and also as a source of imagery. Some did become drawings, but mainly only in the early seventies.

AC: You have also spoken about how in sourcing images for your paintings, what grabs you initially is a particular “gesture” or pose of a figure. Can you discuss how drawing relates to this process of capturing and thinking about the idea of the gesture?

 

JH: Photographs, images from magazines or books, are often already constructed, composed. Some of the work has already been done. The way the light falls in a particular image. The tilt of the head, that is so evocative. The gesture of the hand. Some images are ready to be drawn. They say, “draw me.” In the drawing process, they are changed. Bits are left out. I have emphasised certain details and created spaces—places where the drawing now breathes and becomes something else. As I draw them, they become more my images and take over, and leave behind the source material.

AC: I like the idea you mentioned of an artwork having a meaning that is unknown, or obscure, but nevertheless being able to speak to the viewer in a very immediate, direct way. How has your practice engaged with the idea of expressing (or concealing) meaning?

 

JH: I think art is very much about concealing or about the unknowable. Once something is known or is easily decipherable, it can lose its power to hold our attention and we pass onto other things. The meaning in much of my work (especially the earlier work) is often contradictory and is not open to logical interpretation. Therefore, the symbols I have used and their juxtaposition often have no clear meaning and even I would have trouble analysing much of the work from this period. The paintings and drawings are not primarily about meaning but are meant to convey something else. Something on a much more elemental level such as emotion, calmness, or anxiety. Primal states. States of being.

AC: After moving to Australia, your practice also underwent a radical shift—from figuration to abstraction. As we touched on earlier, drawing played a role in this. How did moving towards abstraction affect your drawing process?

 

JH: Drawing became very important in the process towards abstraction. There are many, many drawings involved in this process. With a few exceptions, they have remained largely unseen, as have most of the drawings done in Dunedin since my return. Whereas most of the drawings from the seventies were very linear and clear, the Melbourne drawings are much darker, heavier and more physical expressions of form and space. The nineties were a great time for drawing in my work, as were the seventies. The eighties less so (with a few exceptions) and I wonder if this has something to do with the fact that I was more hidden away during those two decades. I wonder about whether drawing is a more private and inward activity.

AC: It’s interesting to me that you come back to this idea of space and of bodies in space. Although readings and critical approaches to your work quite often take the tack of trying to relate the paintings to your biography, or trying to construct narrative through-lines that tie together multiple groups of paintings, I wonder if there’s also a sense that what drives your work is this interest in representing space, and the metaphorical and emotional resonance possible in such an image? After all, it would probably be safe to say that the archetypal figure in your practice is a person standing in a landscape. What do you think of this approach to looking at the work?

 

JH: I think it is unfortunate that much of the writing about my work has been focused on its relationship to my life—on the so called autobiographical aspect, or on my biography. I have to take some responsibility for this. I did the works, but in a lifetime of painting and drawing this period only occurs in the years 1977–89. Late in 1989, I made a conscious decision to move away from this sort of subject matter and began my battle with abstraction. And when, later, I returned to figuration in about 1997, the autobiographical element had well and truly gone from my work. (There are a couple of self-portraits and that is about all from this time onwards.) In all the figurative work I have done since, there has been an absence of the hothouse, emotional, heart on the sleeve type of work that characterised the late eighties, work that in the end had become too indulgent and repetitive. It is the work of mine that I like the least and yet it is the work I am best known for. The works from 1967–76, are I find much more interesting and rewarding, dealing as they do with many other ideas and forms. The imagination, dreams, photographic sources, the studies of figures in space. The archetypal figure in a landscape is very strong in my work, but perhaps not as strong or as prominent as it is thought to be, if more of the unseen aspects of my work were widely known.

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