The Recent Small Paintings of Jeffrey Harris


For well over a year, Jeffrey Harris has been working almost exclusively on a number of small paintings. Even in their uncompleted state they seemed a summation of all he has done over the past nine years. Now, completed, they are a confirmation of it.

Jeffrey Harris has been exhibiting since 1969: mainly in Dunedin (where he is currently Frances Hodgkins Fellow); but also in Akaroa and Christchurch, where he had a show - major in anyone's language but passing largely unnoticed - of a hundred-and-sixty paintings at the CSA Gallery in October/November 1972.

JEFFREY HARRIS Crucifixion 1976
oil (Peter McLeavey Galleries)

His recent show at the Peter McLeavey Galleries in May was his fourth or perhaps fifth exhibition in the North Island: but it is the first to present a sufficient body of work to allow fair evaluation. Reservations about limited technique and derivative expression become irrelevant in the face of the often uncomfortably direct and uncompromising nature of the passion that fires his work.

Those who deal historical labels as they would a hand at a card table might describe or even dismiss Harris's work as expressionist or (more accurately) primitive. Such subterfuges may reassure some, but they seldom reveal anything apart from an inability to approach paintings on their own terms.

Harris' almost obsessional intensity at once attracts and repels, because, in his raw particulars of nature and monstrous figures, there is the recognisably familiar.

JEFFREY HARRIS Three Cousins 1976
oil (Peter McLevey Galleries)

In the recent paintings this ever-present paradox has reached a new pitch: but even at its most extreme and disquieting the expression remains a mirror of common experience.

From the very beginning Harris has revealed and drawn on a rich personal memory, which, as his work has progressed, has developed into a complex, cross-referenced imagery. It has a Byzantine-like inevitability: yet there is no lapse into mere formula. Through this imagery, Harris charts the map of his experience: a succession of sectional and aerial views of the landscape of the memory, an indefinite, remembered landscape, nowhere yet somewhere, with a strange wind stirring the immobile ferment.

Just as this painter has drawn on his memory, he has also been drawn towards certain clearly identifiable circumstances; and these several rituals provide the settings for most of his paintings. Broadly, they are groups or single and double portraits of his relations, a mother and child, reclining nudes (harking back to earlier copies of Titian's Venus of Urbino, even to the inclusion of the cat), lovers, mythological groups of men and angels, and 'religious' events such as crucifixions and depositions.

Harris's work over-all is 'religious', covertly as well as overtly, in the same sense as that discussed by Bieringa in his notable introduction to the catalogue of the 1972 Manawatu Art Gallery exhibition McCahon: 'Religious' Works 1946 to 1952. Bieringa is careful to qualify the adjective 'religious' so as 'to avoid any narrow interpretations of the term, to avoid labelling the works as strictly Christian despite their obvious Christian symbolism.' In developing this reinterpretation, what the author says about McCahon can just as valuably be applied to Harris: although when it comes to the paintings themselves there are few similarities other than superficial ones. In Harris's more obviously 'religious' work there is an urgency and desperation absent from McCahon's tranquil, more classical anguish.

JEFFREY HARRIS Grandparents at Okains 1976
oil (Peter McLeavey Galleries)

Comparing these new paintings with earlier work, there are several clear developments discernible. Firstly, there is less use of primary colour. This, coupled with the smaller size, leads to the works having less immediate impact. But it is only a delayed reaction: the length of the fuse not necessarily determining the force of the detonation. The colour is more subtle without being less startling.

Secondly, there is considerably more precise definition in the detail, particularly in elements of landscape, musculature, curtains and clothing. Again, the treatment is more subtle, yet the raw power just as penetrating. 

And thirdly, whereas previously one large painting could contain family groups, a crucifixion, lovers, naked figures, angels - the whole Harris mythology in fact - the present paintings are confined to single events. If the small size is a cause or effect of this, it is more probably the latter.

This matter of size is an indication of Harris's independence as a painter. Without any loss of scale, he has confidently worked within dimensions which, by contemporary standards, could be described as miniscule. A not untypical dimension would be 20 centimetres.

These are the stylistic paradoxes inherent in Harris's reforging of the myths discarded by the solely rational mind. There are others, more deeply embedded in his compulsion to tie the image to a world beyond.

In some of the paintings a window sill becomes a kind of votive altar, complete with vases of flowers - with the window joinery forming a cross, separating the austere interior from the richness of an exterior landscape. This interior/exterior conflict seems evident. in much of Harris's work. But no matter how desperate a situation seems, there is always a view of water - a glimpse of the sea or river - or a road. Inside there are drapes and heavy curtains: outside there is luxuriant vegetation.

A troubled unease surrounds the figures. The nudes recline passively, accepting their fate, on this side of the window, awaiting redemption. The groups stand in an oppressive solitude, vaguely anxious, barely aware of the angels above them, but awaiting salvation. For the lovers under a tree, the act of love is a form of deliverance.

Jeffrey Harris is perhaps the only one of the post-war generation of painters to consistently achieve such original work of undeniably personal origin: to make out of images resonant of a world of forms beyond, grotesque and marvellous miracles.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 6 June/July 1977