From a Burning Bridge
Go back any further than 1627 and you won’t find the phrase ‘holy smoke’ on the printed page. By common consent it first appeared in ‘The Epiphany’, a deathbed dispatch by the English poet Sir John Beaumont that reads, in part, ‘Who lift to God for us / the holy smoke of fervent prayers’. The reference, the OED tells us, is to burning incense. We know ‘holy smoke’ better as a soft-pedalled expletive, in which guise it apparently debuted via Rudyard Kipling and Wolcott Balestier in The Naulahka, their collaborative novel of 1892: ‘By the holy smoke,’ they wrote, ‘someone has got to urge girls to stand by the old machine’. Well, precisely. This was the start of a glorious phase of popular usage for ‘holy smoke’; over a century later it floats on an ebb tide, a barnacled archaism, its formerly functional mildness working against it. Looked at cold, however, the phrase retains not only its attractive euphony but also a certain mystery. That ‘smoke’ is ambiguous, sacred as the censer’s scented profusions or dumbly profane as the other idiomatic bedfellows of ‘holy’. ‘Holy smoke’ flip-flops on its percentages of spiritual and worldly import, shifts under scrutiny’s lamplight, retains a secret, registers ambivalently decorous surprise. All of which makes it a perfect title for a painting by Jane Harris.
Potentially we are going to descend into a thicket of nuances and – holy smoke! – micro-nuances when discussing Holy Smoke (2004), so let’s start with the straightforward stuff. Harris’s composition deploys two ellipses of equivalent size, centred on the canvas with one hovering directly above the other. Both, at first blush, appear white against the copper ‘background’ (I use that word advisedly); both are ridged with a flowing, curving line, the same gently clanging shade as the rest of the canvas, that in turn creates its own fringe of smaller ellipses. Across the top of the upper ellipse and the bottom of the lower one, these junior ellipses are horizontally broad and juicy, like beans fresh from the pod, while those that run along the bottom of the upper ellipse and the top of the lower one are longer, arched, like the fringe of a sunshade. Squint at this coupling and you can infer various incompatible figurations: one roomy lily-pad (or, on a different scale, a Coke-bottle lid) hovering over an inverted other, a split clamshell, a flipped Doc Edgerton milk splash rendered as a cartoon…
But we don’t come to paintings to squint at them. We come to open our eyes, minds and hearts as wide as possible, and Holy Smoke will take all a viewer has to give (and give all a viewer has to take). Let’s step up a gear – and stand fairly still for now, please. One reason, and there are a few, why this painting is hard to walk away from, feeling that you’ve ‘done it’, is that it flaunts an irresolvable disunity of perspectival depth. Harris employs a strict method of painting the mini-ellipse-creating lines around her ellipses: she uses a single confident stroke, swooping from left to right, and when she paints her tall, arched ellipses she moves the brush back before starting the next, overlapping a brush-width of the previous stroke. (There is no masking out in her work, by the way; all those punishing gothic points are done by hand). When light and shadow alight on the microscopic glossy ridges of these brushstrokes, they bestow implied three-dimensionality upon the edge of the ellipse. Which isn’t a huge issue if there’s only one ellipse in the painting – and in that case Harris has a few other aesthetic snares to spread around the territory – but when there are two mirroring each other, the simple fact that the brushstrokes always move from left to right creates an unexpected effect. Thanks to the way light strikes, that which seems to recede demurely in the upper ellipse advances aggressively in the lower, and vice versa. The ellipses don’t seem to belong to the same dimensional world.
Okay, now move. Take a few steps sideways. What will happen is this: light disports upon the surface of the canvas and suddenly, in a sashaying shimmer that seems meant for you alone, the prior fixity dissolves and an occluded stratum of Harris’s art veers into view. The ellipses have changed shape a little, of course, thanks to the warping wonder of anamorphism that, more overtly used, still tickles viewers of Holbein’s The Ambassadors – and given that there’s no ‘correct’ position to view these paintings from, one might say that they are in fact circles painted on an incline. More notably, though, you’re reminded of something quite simple but fundamental about paint: the colour you see is not fixed, but a combination of the tone itself and the light that plays over it. Venture sideways and districts of reflective copper-coloured canvas darken while others brighten; at the same time, because the metallic zone is painted with even vertical brushstrokes and the ‘white’ sections – of which more in a moment – are limned with horizontal ones, light falls in two distinct ways. What was lighter falls into shadow; what was darker is enriched and brightened.
The eye alerted to all this, pleasurably recalibrated to detect optic subtlety, notices that the shades of white on the two ellipses are not objectively equivalent; one is, in fact, painted in a slightly darker shade than the other, or rather the upper one is faintly warmer. Moving around, using light as an accomplice, it’s possible to get the two whites to match, or radically to increase the subtle distinction between them. Another thing happens when you travel: as illumination rakes across the shiny strokes that create the edges of the ellipses, there’s a point where it flips over, jumps a hump, and reverses the sense of perspective previously implied. If there’s an ambient mix of daylight and artificial light, you can even stand still and find these effects constantly – though more slowly – realigning themselves as the Earth loops, on its own elliptical course, around the sun. What is happening, as you waltz around, is that the painting is shape-shifting. Recollections of its previous form lodge in the mind, as does a proliferating sense of the range of unstable formal propositions one is offered: although it might tend to be the case that the brain can only process one or two of these at a time, a residuum of luscious complexity adheres.
At this point, when the art has given ample proof of its ludic proclivities, it’s worth turning to the discussion of physical/metaphysical, high/low binaries it also nudges the viewer towards. This painting, lest we forget, is entitled Holy Smoke, and has an attenuated, uncertain spirituality haloed about it. The ellipses could easily be stylised clouds, either incense clouds or perches for angels. They could also be puffs of factory smoke, and in form they are not dissimilar to the blossoming pinkish cloud that represents the sexual fulfilment of the ‘bride’ in Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23). It is possible, as anyone knows who has laid in a meadow on a summer’s day, to see a lot in clouds. (Not that these are clouds. Our designation, like everything in this work, is a temporary convenience, a hopeful anchor that will never hit seabed.) There is also the question of whether the space they fill is positive or negative; these might just as easily be voids in a gilded skin as tangible objects.
Whatever one’s conclusion, there is another piece of information worth bringing up: Harris’s colour combinations are pulled from the prosaic world around her, and recently she has been inspired by the tones and finishes of automobiles. You can purportedly trace Holy Smoke’s colour combinations back, first, to the spray shop, and secondly to the contingent flashing together – an instantaneous palette – of two differently coloured cars on a road. If some of the smoke in this painting comes from the bridges burning behind the viewer as they move from position to position, from interpretation to interpretation, some of it also is spewing out of an exhaust pipe, the airborne expulsion of our most quotidian form of transportation. But still the painting never quite drifts to earth. It holds spiritual aspiration and a delight in snatched worldly colour in febrile counterpoise, as indeed it maintains a Janus face across the board of its operations.
Despite the fact that you can feel in the colours a reverb of classical painting, where oil and metal socialise on the canvas (or board), the work of Donald Judd – its harmonisation of metallic coldness, haptic sensuality, and satisfying order – is also a ghostly presence. Not here, but in other works, Harris has shown a fondness for ratios which strongly echoes Judd’s own, most strongly, perhaps, in his long, horizontal, wall-mounted pieces wherein gradually narrowing cuboids are separated by gaps that correspond in size to the negative space of those boxes. In Harris’s Deuce (2004), a pair of upended, tiptoeing ellipses is fringed with smaller circlets that play out a complex, slowly revealed game of ratio-based parallelism. This is part of a drive towards giving the viewer a measure of fulfilment: veils are dropped as others are lifted, something simple is revealed as more complicated than it first appears, and when all the strategies are on display the work retains its intransigence and indeterminacy as a result of its intimate relationship with accidents of light and mortal motion.
This must all sound like gentle callisthenics for the eyeball – an escapist frivolity, perhaps. It is not, and for two reasons. The first is that there is a humming, constant level of anxiety involved in viewing Harris’s paintings. As outlined above, there is the feeling that you can never quite know these works, cannot take everything away with you. They are experiential, and yet you have the nagging feeling that you are not that important to them: they will carry on doing what they do after you leave. This is a stress, but it is the kind now identified by therapists as eustress – positive, low-risk stress, the order of tension we actually need in our lives. Wary as I am of therapy-speak, however, I’d like to advance a greater extramural purposefulness of such art. We live at a time of diminishing social freedoms. Our motions are increasingly surveilled and circumscribed. Our cultural products increasingly seek to do our thinking for us – this has been the case over the last couple of decades in the visual arts – and, when they do not, a swelling class of cultural commentators (mea culpa) are there to ensure an ease of reception that will not place us in a state whereby we have to actually think. Harris’s unstable painted arenas, as I hope I have demonstrated while dipping into the deep and roiling waters of just one representative example, sidestep this luxurious prison.
They offer – no, they insist upon – a feeling of autonomous discovery for the viewer, yet at the same time they go beyond Duchamp’s dusty dictum that the viewer completes the artwork. Here, light completes the artwork, then completes it again, then again, until it is clear that it will never be complete. (But the viewer, by orientation, temporarily controls the artwork’s relationship to the light.) These paintings manifest an inhabitable world wherein opposites are offered up for one’s own provisional resolution: is this decoration or abstraction? Is the import base or spiritual? How do I harmonise the perspective? In so doing, they create a cloud of unknowing whose navigation is perversely pleasurable, yet leave you with a sense of a world that has to be continually remade, a task that is never done. If showing is better than telling, Jane Harris’s paintings suggest that engaging is better than showing, their mechanisms militating against torpid self-satisfaction and quietly decry immurement against thought and motion. To be sure there is a vigorous and generous attention to beauty afoot in these works. But Matisse’s tired businessman, motionless in his armchair and perhaps blowing unholy smoke out of a cigar, may well be the absolute inverse of their ideal viewer.
Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Kent, UK. His writing has appeared in numerous art magazines including Artforum, Frieze, and Modern Painters. He is currently writing a non-fiction book and working with the British artist Darren Almond on an ongoing project in Siberia.