A Conversation with Jeffrey Harris

Jeffrey Harris lives in Dunedin and has exhibited his painting widely since his first one-man show in 1969. A former Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago (in 1977) he now paints full-time. His work revolves largely around the themes of the Crucifixion, the self-portrait and the figure in the landscape. When he visited Auckland recently Art New Zealand discussed with him, among other things, these three themes and his individual treatment of them.

ART NEW ZEALAND: Tell us about your beginnings.
JEFFREY HARRIS: I was born in Akaroa and grew up on Banks Peninsula. My parents have a farm there. I went to high school in Rangiora, then worked in Christchurch for three years before going to Dunedin. I grew up in a fairly isolated environment. In my three years in Christchurch nothing really happened to me. There were no outward changes in my life. I had no friends there. I was quite alone - and I started to paint.

JEFFREY HARRIS Crucifixion in Landscape 1969
Oil pastel, 729 x 1064 mm.
(Hocken Library, Dunedin)

A.N.Z.: A lot of people in New Zealand feel they suffer from that lack of experience.
J.H.: Well - there was enough happening in Christchurch; but I didn't know anyone. I used to go home every weekend because there was no-one to keep me in Christchurch.
A.N.Z.: What effect do you think that has had in the long term?
J.H.: Being alone like that? I got used to it: so I feel it's the way to stay now. I spent a month working with McCahon once: he taught me that you have to be lonely to be an artist in New Zealand. Now I wouldn't want to become involved in societies or any of that sort of rubbish.
A.N.Z.: Was there any special reason for your leaving Christchurch and going to Dunedin?
J.H.: It was mainly because of Michael Smither. He was the Hodgkins Fellow at that time. I'd seen some of his pictures - and liked them a lot-so I wrote to him. To cut a long story short. . . I lived in a little back room in his studio for a year and painted there.
A.N.Z.: Did you have any art school training?
J.H.: No. There was no opportunity for me to. I didn't go to art school. But I spent a lot of money on art books: that was my art education. I kept discovering paintings. There's a strong feeling of the excitement of discovery as I look back on that period now.
A.N.Z.: What did you discover? Were there any particular influences?
J.H.: So many. Take my Crucifixions... I started doing them very early on. At that time I was influenced by Francis Bacon's Crucifixions.
A.N.Z.: What was it about them that impressed you?
J.H.: It was the fact that they're not 'religious'. I have my own problems relating to the religious aspect of the Crucifixion. But Bacon used the theme as a symbol for human suffering or his personal suffering - and so do l. At some stage throughout my work I've probably used the Crucifixion for most of .the reasons it's ever been used in the history of art. But it was Bacon who showed me it could be used to communicate suffering that is spiritual but doesn't have a conventional religious content. Even without that content the Cruxifixion can still be a powerful symbol. My 1969 Crucifixion is like that.

JEFFREY HARRIS Self Portrait 1970
Oil, 885 x 1217 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

I was also influenced by one of Michael Smither's Crucifixions.
A.N.Z.: Much of what you do seems to relate to the art of the past.
J.H.: Yes. My sort of art isn't of the twentieth century. It has more to do with the nineteenth century or an even earlier century. There's a lot of Expressionism there - but it's more than just expressionist.
A.N.Z.: What are some of these influences from earlier art?
J.H.: Dürer is an artist I have taken a good look at. His portraits especially are very powerful; and they say a lot to me. What I like most about him is that he was the first artist who painted the artist as the self: as an individual, wholly alone. In his self-portraits, the artist, suffering and alone, becomes the centre of the work. He even went so far as to identify himself with Christ. In a reversal of the medieval conception - both theological and artistic - he made Christ a symbol of man.
A.N.Z.: You don't feel the egotism in this - either in Dürer or yourself?
J.H.: Well I don't think anyone would seriously accuse Dürer of that any more. Perhaps they have trouble accepting the same sort of thing from me because I'm still around! With Dürer the paintings are the only things people have to judge him by. In that case, why do they feel the need to judge me apart from my work.

I think what I do is honest in a more intense way than people are used to. I've learnt this from Dürer and developed it in my own self-portraits. There are other Northern artists who I like a lot who do the same thing - like Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge. It's the same thing with Bacon's Crucifixions.

JEFFREY HARRIS Man and Woman in front of Crucifixion 1972
Oil, 330 x 330 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

Those painters' self-portraits (and mine I hope) have a religious intensity even though their object is not conventionally religious. They bring a religious intensity to their consideration of their own humanity - like the writings of Kierkegaard.

The point I'm trying to make is that the religious elements pertain to the quality of the work - to its feeling - not to its content.
A.N.Z.: Are there any other ways in which these painters' self-portraits have influenced your paintings?
J.H.: Yes. Dürer surrounds himself with objects that are charged with meaning. So does Runge. If you look at his painting We Three - a group portrait of himself with his wife and brother - there are three trees, which work as physical metaphors for the relationships between the three characters.

In my paintings I try to imbue all the objects that surround the central characters with as much significance as that. If you look at any of my pictures you should learn a lot more about what's happening in the centre of visual attention by looking at what's happening around it.

My 1970 Self-Portrait is based on Dürer's self-portrait as Christ. It's one example of how I've tried to integrate European art with my experience here in New Zealand.
A.N.Z.: To get back to your development: what sort of things were you doing before you went to Dunedin?
J.H.: When I was on my own in Christchurch? I did a lot of things out of my imagination and a lot based on newspaper photographs. They were images of violence mainly. I've got a whole collection of photographs I clipped out of papers. I used them as the starting point for many pictures. So a lot of my stuff before I went to Dunedin was either right out of my head - rather than from my experience in the world - or it was 'found' stuff - which also had nothing to do with my own experience.

JEFFREY HARRIS Self Portrait, Joanna, Magdalena and Imogen at Barrys Bay 1975-1977
Pencil, 353 x 427 mm.
(Private collection, Dunedin)

A.N.Z.: This changed when you went to Dunedin?
J.H.: Well, I did a lot of family groups - many of which were influenced by Michael Smither. And I started to paint 'real-life' situations. In Dunedin a lot more started to happen to me.
A.N.Z.: Can you give us some examples of events which led to paintings?
J.H.: I don't want to talk about what specific events in my life produced what specific paintings. Some of my paintings are most definitely about real events but people don't need to know all the details to get something out of the work.
A.N.Z.: But the fact that it is your life is obviously important. It means you paint in a different way than you would if it all just came out of your head.
J.H.: Sure. Things happen, and there's an imaginative development which results in certain paintings.
A.N.Z.: Do you think you live through your paintings?
J.H.: Probably. I suppose my art could be an excuse for not living. That's a question it's impossible for me to give an objective answer to. The whole thing might be a kind of therapy. Somebody said to me: 'If you feel like cutting someone's head off, why don't you just do it.'
A.N.Z.: It seems that with some of these paintings - Man and Woman in Front of Crucifixion for instance - there's a risk you will be misinterpreted by people who don't know the experience behind the work.
J.H.: I suppose one just has to find out more about what I think. You can look at one of Dürer's paintings and come to the wrong conclusion too. But it should be obvious in most cases. Take the self-portrait drawing with my family at Barrys Bay for instance. I'm not too worried about wrong interpretations. It's a risk any artist has to take. l know what the works mean to me and if they mean something different to someone else that's fine.
A.N.Z.: Even the paintings seemingly not based on personal experience must come from there at a deeper level. The signs and symbols must have an origin.
J.H.: There's a whole language. Many of the symbols are things I've borrowed and made my own: the rope, the noose, the bowl, the letter, the floating head. They may not reappear in my work for some years; but they'll always recur eventually. Such elements don't necessarily come from personal experience. I've developed them to communicate what I have to say. But they're not just things I've picked out of books either. I don't know where they come from. But I think the paintings are convincing. I think they're true. McCahon's lived his symbols and I'm living mine. You've got to live your art.
A.N.Z.: Do you see yourself as a New Zealand artist?
J.H.: I don't know. I think there's an affinity with things of the spirit wherever they are. I can't stand that 'fifties national identity thing. The national identity has been all sewn up.

Obviously I'd be different if I was somewhere else. But so what?' I have enough trouble working out how I am now. You've got two groups of contemporary New Zealand painters. There are the internationalists like Scott and Killeen and all those people. And there are artists like Tony Fomison and me. I think ours is the real individuality. We're not striving for anything outside ourselves - neither national identity nor international significance.

JEFFREY HARRIS Self Portrait 1980
Oil, 1240 x 1270 mm.
(Peter Webb Galleriest)

This is visible in my work. The noose represents suicide and it appears quite often because suicide's always a possibility. A lot of individualistic artists committed suicide: but a painter who's concerned about New Zealand's national identity wouldn't because their main thing is not themselves. I'm feeding off myself.
A.N.Z.: Do you have no patience with either internationalism or regionalism?
J.H.: I wouldn't put it that strongly. But I think regional art doesn't have enough to feed on here - you can only paint Egmont so many times. McCahon introduced outside elements. I've introduced elements of German Expressionism and the early Renaissance.
A.N.Z.: Can you talk about this in relation to a specific painting?
J.H.: In Myself, my Wife and another Figure I've married an identifiable New Zealand landscape with European Expressionist figures. These are figures who would perhaps never appear here, so in some ways it possibly represents a nostalgia for other societies. The feeling of that painting is not New Zealand.
A.N.Z.: How do your pictures start?
J.H.: With a feeling. I have strong feelings about something, then find the terms to suit the feeling. I don't observe people: I observe something that happens to me and the way it affects me. .
A.N.Z.: Content seems much more important to you than form: but a lot of your pictures are interesting formally.
].H.: Yes. When I did the Self-Portrait 1980 I didn't realise I was repeating what I did in the 1970 self-portrait.

JEFFREY HARRIS Myself, My Wife and Another Figure 1971
Oil, 805 x 1220 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

All the way through my work there are pictures inside pictures. Something else is happening behind the main action. In Adoration of Christ, the window opens on to a pagan scene, represented by the women and the flash car. There's a choice between the philosophy of that life and the religious philosophy presented in the main part of the painting. All my pictures are about crossroads really: good and evil, Christianity and the pleasure principle, among other things.
A.N.Z:: And even the violent subject-matter can have its formal uses?
J.H.: Yes. I suppose I get a more interesting abstract pattern by distributing limbs around a picture. But all my paintings are quite formal and often this comes from unconscious sources.

I don't know what to say about the violence. I suppose there's a castration theme. A lot of the nude figures don't have sexual organs. Maybe I'm castrating myself. The pictures are of what's going on in my mind, and I'm not really sure what's going on in there. In a lot of the pictures there are hands cut off - and my hands are the most important things I've got.

JEFFREY HARRIS Adoration of Christ 1972
Oil, 1219 x 1219 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

A.N.Z.: That's often the case in your Crucifixions - particularly your 1969 one. The figures have been almost dehumanised.
J.H.: Yes. They've no hands, no feet, no genitals, indistinct features. The Crucifixions on the whole are less autobiographical than my other paintings, though it's hard to make clear distinctions. In them I'm often getting out what I generally feel about life, the human condition.
A.N.Z.: You see rife essentially as suffering?
J.H.: No. I have to be careful not to overemphasise that. I think there's a strong life-force in my work. It's not life-denying or pessimistic. But I do face up to the suffering.
A.N.Z.: So what does the Crucifixion mean to you?
J.H.: It's the end. It's just death. You have to remember that my Crucifixions aren't specifically Christian. I don't believe in life after death. Death's final. But that 1969 Crucifixion also expresses compassion, I hope. It arouses compassion in me - it should also do so in the viewer.

JEFFREY HARRIS Untitled (Judith) No 3 1978 / 1979
Oil, 1120 x 1770 mm. (Serjeant Gallery, Wanganui)
Photograph by Trevor Ulyatt

Adoration of Christ is another sort of crucifixion. Just after I got married - my wife's a Catholic - I did a group of paintings about me confronting Christianity. The Adoration is one of those. It shows me trying to come to terms with Christianity. . .
A.N.Z.: And rejecting it?
J.H.: No. I haven't rejected it: but I haven't accepted it either. Adoration of Christ shows me appealing to Christ and he. . . he can't give you anything.
A.N.Z.: Might it not be that you have missed the message?
J.H.: But he can't give you anything. He can't talk. The paintings are about those struggles with myself. There are two or three self-portraits in some of them - so I'm confronting myself as well as Christ.

A lot of the paintings are about two or three or four things. They're to be read on that many levels. As well as questioning the belief in Christ in the Adoration I'm questioning whether or not I should believe in myself.

Different sides of me are prominent at different times. That's how the work constitutes an emotional biography. Man and Woman in Front of Crucifixion shows two people who are not even looking at Christ; they're going the other way.

JEFFREY HARRIS Study for Self Portrait 1973
Pencil, 350 x 280 mm.
(Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt)
Photograph by Trevor Ulyatt

By my not repudiating Christianity once and for all, I still have it on my mind, with all the problems it poses for me.
A.N.Z.: With all that you've said so far it hardly seems surprising that so many of your works are self-portraits.
J.H.: Yes. They mean a lot to me. They sum up the different periods of my life at which they were done. In the Self-Portrait with the books I'm stating 'this is what I believe'. The books are spirits talking to you. Other people can tell you what they did to make their lives bearable. Partly, I suppose, they're a religious substitute. And there are many letters in these paintings. They're the modern day equivalent of the books: spiritual communication that keeps you going. The letters aren't symbols - they're specific personal letters.

In that self-portrait, and in my 1980 self-portrait, I'm inside, divorced from the landscape. The portraits show that sense of isolation which gives me such an affinity with Dürer. But in my drawing of myself and family at Barrys Bay I'm outside and trying to achieve integration with my family and a place.

The very symbolic background I was talking about before is in this picture too. The birds are the spirit soaring or struggling up. And the picture contains a fine balance between good and evil - the traditional good of the family versus the menacing quality of the fetish. Since doing it I've wondered whether both the birds and the fetish represent life after death.

JEFFREY HARRIS Katherine Mansfield at Menton 1973
Oil, 1210 x 1360 mm.
(Private collection, Auckland)

All my pictures relate to each other: Adoration of Christ, for example, is about another kind of integration.
A.N.Z.: Do these integrations have a final outcome?
J.H.: Aesthetically, I think they usually do. But otherwise. . . If the one in the drawing had, I wouldn't have had to do the 1980 Self-Portrait, which is really a reworking of the 1970 one. Another thing you'll notice is that the people whose books are in the earlier picture also couldn't integrate with society: Nijinsky, Van Gogh, Kafka, Whitman. The later painting - for good or bad - reconfirms the earlier one.
A.N.Z.: There's another self-portrait which seems to integrate you with the landscape.
J.H.: You mean Self-Portrait B. But that's another failed integration. I'm isolated in the landscape in that picture - I have no eyes. Alone, I can't see and as a painter if I can't see I can't communicate.
A.N.Z.: Your interest in landscape might seem to provide some sort of link with the New Zealand regionalists.
J.H.: It's never just the landscape. My landscapes are always populated. And it's normally the people in it who give the picture its meaning. Once again it's hard to separate these from my other pictures - many of them contain self-portraits: and all of the Crucifixions are also 'figures in landscape' of a sort.

Myself, my Wife and another Figure, for instance, is largely about insecurity (and love). It was painted just after my marriage. Although two of the people are obviously myself and Joanna, we don't know who the third person is. It's nobody - or it's my imagination or my fear: my insecurity about marriage. It's quite androgynous; rather a spirit-like figure. It would be a lesser painting if you could get a simple single reading out of it.

Untitled (Judith) is also about that insecurity. In the first painting the threat to the marriage is imagined. In the second it's got a foundation in fact. So in the seven years between the paintings there is a progression from an imagined situation to a real one.

JEFFREY HARRIS Crucifixion and Figures in Landscape 1971
Oil, 1219 x 1219 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

A.N.Z.: There seems to be a lot of room for people to bring their own experiences to your work.
J.H.: I think there might be something 'archetypal' about them. I'm sure there's a lot that is Jungian in them too. A good psychiatrist could probably tell you more about them than I can.
A.N.Z.: What about Katherine Mansfield at Menton?
J.H.: Once again, that combines elements which are in lots of my pictures: like my opinions on the relationship between New Zealand and European culture which I mentioned before. The painting is about a New Zealander dying in a place which both is and isn't her home. It's a problem of integration again. It's an image of violence and also of courage. Courage is one positive value which I hope is present in my work.
A.N.Z.: Do you get the feeling that you're progressing - working through, say, your feelings of insecurity, and moving on to new affirmations?
J.H.: I wish I was, but I don't think so. The whole thing seems to be going in a circle. It's not a straightforward progression. I keep coming back to the same things. I do repeat things, but I don't see it as a fault. Since my work is an emotional biography, whether or not I still believe something is an important matter. The 1980 self-portrait is better than the 1970 one because it's more simplified. It's more loosely painted, but it's a tighter aesthetic unit. Maybe in another ten years there'll be a self-portrait that's better still. So, even if my feelings aren't developing and I'm still having the same problems, as works of art they're getting better.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 18 Summer 1981