The title of this painting is Pacific. But the interview that follows happened in painter Jen P. Harris’s home in Hudson, New York, a week before her first New York solo show at Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery. Harris, born in 1977, is an artist coming into her own. She’s won numerous awards and fellowships and has had solo shows in museums. It’s going well and there’s no reason to believe the accolades or milestones will stop anytime soon. But Pacific tells a more nuanced and important part of the story. It’s no wonder the gallery is using it in all of its promotional materials. It’s an iconic piece even at this early stage of her career, although as Harris points out she has been painting seriously for twenty years. At first blush one can tell it is a piece that is going to become increasingly important to collectors, both as a testament to the early part of her career and as a foundational piece of her oeuvre.
I asked to come to Hudson to use Pacific as a lens through which we could talk about the public and private aspects of a successful career. I also wanted to discuss how she navigates being a queer artist and how that affects the work. As one looks more closely at this painting the idea of gender becomes blurred until the viewer isn’t truly sure of whose embrace he (she?) is privy to. Like Goya, whose work Harris says she is deeply indebted to, many of Harris’s paintings are extremely large, deepening the sense of a cinematic gaze and romance while also requiring the viewer to be physically engaged in the work. It takes patience to make a piece that detailed and large in the same way it takes patience to “emerge.” This is a meditation on an artist coming into her own and out into the open.
Originally from Baltimore, Harris received a B.A. in Art from Yale University and an MFA in Painting from Queens College CUNY. Her work has been exhibited at venues such as the Rockland Center for the Arts (New York), the University of Nevada (Reno), Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation (New York City), The Wassaic Project (New York), and Coagula Projects (Los Angeles). The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts featured a major solo exhibition of her paintings and drawings in 2010. She will have another solo show at Hudson’s own John Davis Gallery in October 2011.
Like the figures in her paintings, Jen P. Harris is striking; slim and boyish, she has the short hair and angular face of a young prince or one of the surfer boys she paints. Upon entering the house I was immediately struck by the calm that emanates from her and how that calm fills the rooms, with their weathered floorboards and light pouring in through the windows. When the time came to talk about Pacific we moved into the room it hangs in. Amidst stained glass ceiling lamps and well worn furniture, I watched her cock her head and let her startlingly clear eyes take the painting in.
—Gabrielle Calvocoressi for Guernica
Jen P. Harris: Yes. I felt ready to make that move [from NYC] after I felt that I was to the point where I could emerge. I actually wanted to be on the outside in order to do it—for the work, mostly. There’s an incredible amount of pressure in NYC and making art there is challenging in terms of time and space and money and all that. So it was a choice I made really for the benefit of the work. But, to get back to your question about what is the center…
Guernica: We’re looking at a piece, and I’ve been noticing this about a lot of your work, the figures do come right in the center of the piece a lot of the time. Which is a really challenging and brave thing because automatically, it’s like writing in form. You are having this conversation with all different kinds of history in terms of spectatorship when you place figures, particularly in an embrace, in the center of the painting.
Jen P. Harris: And it’s certainly something that as a young artist in art school, I was taught not to do. When you’re learning about composition, there’s all this talk about not placing anything in the center. An unlearned or inexperienced or untrained artist would do that. That’s sort of our tendency—as a child you’d do that.
Guernica: Don’t put the poem down the center of the page…
Jen P. Harris: I thought about it a lot when I was at the beginning of this project; basically the centering started with this idea of just stripping away everything else and leaving only this kiss or embrace, which seemed like such a sort of wrong thing to do—even to choose it as a subject. I thought about it for a long time before I actually started doing it. I was completely wracked with insecurities about even showing it to anyone. It seemed like it was too sentimental, it was too straight forward, you know, it wasn’t complex enough.
But I kept coming back to that central composition and I just really wanted to see if I could push it far enough and make it so central and so iconic that it would start to do something more complex.
Photo by Susan Alzner, courtesy of the artist
Guernica: I’m wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about that—the unknown within the thing that we think we know so much about.
Jen P. Harris: The process of getting to this image in particular started with making many, many small black and white drawings of these very central figures, literally centered in the page with no other compositional elements, just basically on black. So these figures that were in a black field, centered, squarely on the page began as being very highly detailed. I was articulating everything and not leaving that unknown that you’re talking about, and through the process of repeating that drawing exercise I found that what I became interested in was offering only the minimum amount of information, visual information, to portray the energy of those figures, and the gestures of those figures and to let the rest go. They started to be so much more evocative and to have so much more power as icons. And the unknown places are kind of like these access points.
Guernica: You enter in this liminal space and here again is this notion you keep bringing up.
Jen P. Harris: And that little lightening-bolt thing in between is the negative space in the negative space. Those are the kind of shapes and details that really only emerge for me when I let go of all that other detail and let that liminal space foreground itself.
Guernica: I like that you used the word emerge in that sentence because so often that term doesn’t actually take into account what it is for a painting like this to emerge for the person making it. I’m fascinated in thinking about how this painting emerged for you, particularly in the area of color and how that relates to balance.
Jen P. Harris: I often start a piece in the middle in terms of saturation and value, so there’s a certain flatness to it, and as I’m working, as I’m developing the image I begin to pull out the color that you’re talking about. And it functions as it does because of that middle ground, those medium tones and the close values allow the areas that are more like… that darkness under the elbow was such an important moment… because there’s nothing quite that dark in the rest of the painting, it counteracts everything else and sort of snaps everything else into place. It’s a very intuitive process for me to develop that though, an intuitive process when I’m painting.
In terms of the color itself I’ve been using all kinds of tricks to arrive at these color palettes that are sort of strange and otherworldly. The way that I’ve been doing that has been to use black and white studies where there’s a total absence of color and so it’s just all about the value relationships and then also to use watercolor studies. A watercolor study for an oil painting is a really interesting idea for me that I kind of stumbled onto, because watercolor is all about transparency, and so there’s a real difference in materiality between the two mediums. When I translate a transparent image in watercolor into an opaque oil painting the color does all these kind of crazy things. And so I use the watercolor like I’m painting, like, a landscape outside. These are the colors from the watercolor itself. And that way I’m sort of able to trick myself into making these palettes that I otherwise probably would not mix.
Guernica: Does the space in between that watercolor and painting feel like something?
Jen P. Harris: The space between the two?
You have to be in it. The whole body’s involved in making it which really changes the way it’s made and also changes the energy of it. I mean you can feel that in it.
Guernica: Yes. Does it feel like something is ever lost in between the two?
Jen P. Harris: Something is definitely lost, but at a certain point I abandon the watercolor because the oil painting is something else. It has everything to do with scale, too. Because of the large scale an area that was a wash in a small watercolor suddenly is an area 4-by-4 feet in the large painting.
Guernica: How big is this painting?
Jen P. Harris: This is 60-by-80 inches. So it’s pretty large. It’s five feet tall. The watercolor was probably 15-by-20 inches and so there are all these areas that are blown up and magnified, and the watercolor has to be abandoned. The painting then has its own internal logic that I follow.
Guernica: I think this painting fits a lot of different notions of something that is truly cinematic in the way the gaze works in the way it is framed, in how large the romance is.
Jen P. Harris: That’s another tricky word.
Guernica: Is there something about working within something this big that changes the experience?
Jen P. Harris: Yeah, it is huge. And well, I mean, as a maker it’s a very different experience [from making the watercolor], obviously. It’s bigger than me.
Guernica: There’s no way physically not to be in it in a way.
Jen P. Harris: You have to be in it. The whole body’s involved in making it which really changes the way it’s made and also changes the energy of it. I mean you can feel that in it. But I think the word cinematic—I have used that to talk about this work and it is sort of a tricky word because it’s so ubiquitous and is used in so many different ways—but part of why I think of this as cinematic is because, the format itself is cinematic, the aspect ratio of the canvas, so the way the image is framed and also the use of scale for me has something to do with why I would call it cinematic—the size of the bird in the foreground that’s so humongous compared to that boy underneath, in relationship to the central figures. There’s a movement back and forth in space that relates to cinema for me. There’s a sense of movement even though a painting is a still object.
But to take that kitsch aspect and to make it something a little bit different so it’s new and people notice it or want to look at it, or to give some depth to it, there’s a discovery within that. We’re inundated with images and it’s so easy to walk past them.
Guernica: What films did you love growing up?
Jen P. Harris: I was a big, big Fellini fan and in high school I watched those constantly. I think the strangeness of his framing has definitely influenced me. I don’t really think about it consciously anymore. I haven’t watched a Fellini film in a long time but I do think that that’s been influential—and Hitchcock too. And I think both of them, their use of juxtaposition is something that I’m pretty influenced by. In terms of romance, you know, it’s funny I don’t know if I have a really clear memory of something in particular. It’s more of a blur or like a composite of so many love scenes.
Guernica: What do they have in common?
Jen P. Harris: Centrality. I think the centrality of the image is a common factor, and the sort of overblown unreality of cinematic or filmic love scenes. That’s something that I was trying to push even further in these paintings.
Guernica: There is also a way in which that kind of overblown, really heightened romantic yearning is a really charged energy within the art of many queer artists. I wonder if that’s true for you.
Jen P. Harris: I always wanted there to be nuance within that overblownness, if that makes sense. I think we’ve all seen these images over and over again. It’s kitsch. But to take that kitsch aspect and to make it something a little bit different so it’s new and people notice it or want to look at it, or to give some depth to it, there’s a discovery within that. We’re inundated with images and it’s so easy to walk past them. For me, part of the challenge was to see if I could make something familiar that people would actually look at.
Guernica: What is the experience of picking the pieces for this show? How are they in conversation with each other, particularly with Pacific being such an iconic piece?
Jen P. Harris: It’s challenging. We knew immediately that this would be in it and then I kind of built out from that. It’s partly based on practicalities and logistics. How big are the walls? Each space is going to be different; if I were to do the same show somewhere else it would be a totally different experience because it’s that room, the physical space that you enter into, how you pass through it.
I wanted to balance the color work with the black-and-white work. That was part of the concept of this project from the beginning, that it would be comprised of two different kinds of images: black-and-white images and color images. The black-and-white images would be these very closely cropped portraits with no real sense of any kind of landscape or world outside of that. And then these paintings where the figures are in this bigger, outside world and their relationship to that world kind of becomes part of the story.
We’re not sure how we’re going to hang it yet. That will happen when all the work is physically in the room, then you can kind of start to see what makes sense in terms of how someone’s going to travel through the space and what painting is going to talk to the other painting across the room. That kind of thing is always really fun too, to figure out, because within a painting there can be all these echoes or rhymes and when you have a lot of them together in a room, that can kind of ricochet around the space. It’s a matter of figuring out how to make that happen.
Guernica: Can you feel when something’s off?
Jen P. Harris: Yes.
Guernica: What are you like when something’s off in a painting? What’s it like to live with you when something’s off?
Jen P. Harris: I can be a little bit difficult. Because I get kind of single-track mind, I would say very internal and somewhat obsessive.
Guernica: Is it different feeling that way in NYC and feeling that way here?
Jen P. Harris: I feel it a little more here, actually, because there aren’t as many other things to diffuse it. And my studio’s in my home, and that makes a big difference. I love it, and it’s also challenging in certain ways because I never really get away from it; it’s always easy to go down into the studio and sometimes I just have to not do that because at times I need space away from the work. I’m sure you do too.
Guernica: Yeah, I do.
Jen P. Harris: But at other times you just have to be right up against it.
Guernica: It’s super intimate.
Jen P. Harris: Yeah, and you have to, otherwise you’re not going to get through it, you know?
Guernica: So, what just happened?
Jen P. Harris: That was my phone; that was my accountant, who is an art collector and an accountant for art people, that’s kind of her specialty. Anyway, she has shown my website to a few of her friends and she’s been having me bring pieces down to her office. She’s selling to people, or trying to sell. So she was just calling because tomorrow I’m going down with two more pieces. So many details.
Guernica: So, we just got to see the exact balance you have to strike, even here in Hudson.
Jen P. Harris: It works out pretty well here because there is such privacy that I actually feel very happy when there’s a public interjection. It’s different from the city where there’s so much public all the time. It actually feels sort of like it’s easier to handle here, for me. It’s nice to have someone else handling it though: the dealer’s going to handle everything for the show.
Guernica: Which is part of emerging, right?
Jen P. Harris: It is part of emerging, totally.
Guernica: It seems to me, there is something nice about those moments where having that funny name attached to you allows one to do things like spend more time on their work.
Jen P. Harris: Absolutely. In a way it’s a nice moment because not many people really care at this point what I’m doing, which is a very liberating thing. There’s not an expectation from the outside world. At the same time there is some support so it’s another liminal space, between freedom and support. Once you get to a certain point it can be challenging to maintain that freedom because of outside expectations coming in. Especially in terms of commerce—if something is selling, it can be challenging to turn away from that thing.
Guernica: It seems to me that that is a central issue in the work. You are making work that at first glance could look like a kind of accessible painting that anyone would want in their living room—“oh my God, the colors are so amazing,” and “these people are kissing; that guy and that girl are kissing…wait.” And then you think, “Is that a guy and a girl? Because I am not putting a painting of two homos in my living room.”
Jen P. Harris: Exactly, yeah.
Guernica: And that is about commerce as well.
Jen P. Harris: It totally is… No, it is, absolutely. Absolutely. You’re right on. And yeah, that’s central to the work, especially this body of work.
Guernica: Which is one of the things that makes it really political because then it’s also about capital and how that works within the body.
Jen P. Harris: Yes. With this work I was thinking a lot about how to destabilize propaganda or commercial imagery, which is so packaged, you know? And it’s stable. There’s no question about it. The message is there and so to go into that, use that form, use that reference, to destabilize it very subtly, not by putting an X through it but through engaging a viewer with it, bringing the viewer in and then… No one’s going to ask those kind of questions until they’re looking closely. You have to look closely to get to that point; and so it’s this way of drawing people in, seducing. I mean it’s really about seduction too.
I think that painting is important because it asks that commitment of people. Most things don’t anymore; poetry does, I think. But most things don’t; you just have a package that can be immediately consumed and then you go see the next thing.
Guernica: And that’s a super destabilized place, right because I’m always struck by this piece and the pieces in this series is that at some point like you’re so sucked into this and you want it and then one realizes, “Wait, what is it I want?”
Jen P. Harris: The hidden faces or the shadows and the lack of detail in certain areas lead to that ambiguity or make that ambiguity happen. For me it has everything to do with, yes, seduction, and then at the same time, like hiding, or something unknown, you know? Which has to do with the closet. I think that the interaction of this unknowable aspect and then this entrance into it nevertheless, that kind of tension, is really what this work is about.
Guernica: Hiding. And hiding another person: I’d never thought about it until this time, although I don’t know why because it actually makes a lot of sense. But the act of one person’s, even if it’s the landscape’s, overt desire and eroticism, like all of that done in the service of somehow protecting this other figure’s desire. All of this is a kind of smoke and mirrors for like the real…
Jen P. Harris: Yeah.
Guernica: Of like allowing some figure to want in private.
Jen P. Harris: Absolutely. That’s very well put.
Guernica: That’s the thing about getting to sit; I feel so blessed to get to sit in this house for twenty-four hours with these paintings. I know that you do lead a contemplative life and you have a contemplative practice, and it seems to me that these paintings invite meditation in the sense that the revelation comes in finding oneself in the image and being transformed in some way.
Jen P. Harris: Making the work is part of my contemplative practice, it’s like a huge part of it. The process of closely observing has always been for me—as someone who’s drawn for my whole life, from life, initially, all the time, before I even knew what meditation was—has been a form of meditation. With these, especially the larger scale works, it really is this very slow and contemplative process to build the image. And so of course to actually unpack the image or to fully enter the image takes that same kind of time. I remember hearing a video interview with Fred Tomaselli—he recently had a show at the Brooklyn Museum—and in the video he was talking about how much time it takes him to make those pieces: it takes at least six months for each one. And they’re physically layered through the resin, and his use of collage and all of that, so you can actually see the time through the physical layers.
Time in these pieces has so much to do with meditation… the stillness of the image is one way to talk about time and the timelessness of it, but then there’s also the physical labor and the time that went into it and the time that someone will actually spend with it, which is what I feel completes it. That is a very important aspect of the work and having a… let me see if I can articulate this because this seems important. Part of what you were asking about in the very beginning was an unknown area in these figures and I think that that connects a lot to what I’m trying to say right now in terms of an entry point for the viewer to then find these other kinds of moments that are happening—which when you take in the image as a whole, in one glance, you don’t necessarily see. And so being able to enter into these areas that are very open-ended in terms of their forms and to find these more articulated forms and to start to understand how that is working in the painting takes time, I hope. I hope you’d spend time with it.
Guernica: And a kind of commitment and patience, which we don’t always have.
Jen P. Harris: Painting has always demanded that I think, and that’s one of the reasons that I’ve decided to continue painting. I had kind of stepped away from painting for a little while at a certain point, and did some video work, and animation. But I think that painting is important because it asks that commitment of people. Most things don’t anymore; poetry does, I think. But most things don’t; you just have a package that can be immediately consumed and then you go see the next thing.
Our conversation was momentarily interrupted by the sound of a passing train.
Guernica: That’s the train.
Jen P. Harris: Yeah, that’s the train that connects to New York City, which is why this place is so wonderful and why so many artists are here. It’s a place that’s still connected. Not too far outside, it’s close enough.
Guernica: You know Bachelard says one of the main functions of the home is to protect the dreamer. And it seems to me that you’ve come to a place that has formed a kind of protective space to dream and make work and then, like the meditation bell, that train comes and you have to come back to the world.
Jen P. Harris: It’s true. And I find it very comforting, that sort of coming back. Although it’s interesting, there are times, there are days when I get to the end of the day and I don’t remember the train coming by at all. So I guess those days I’m really kind of deep into something, and I don’t hear it, which is funny, because it’s so loud.
Photo by Susan Alzner, courtesy of the artist
To contact Guernica or Jen P. Harris, please write here.