Turning

Exhibition title: Out There
Author: Charles Darwent
Publisher: Eagle Gallery EMH Arts
Date: 2018

    To most of the world, Josef Albers is a painter of squares. And with good reason. For the last quarter-century of his long life, starting at the age of sixty-two, Albers worked on the series that would come to define him: the Homages to the Square, of which more than two thousand paintings and many more prints survive. And yet Albers himself did not agree with the popular view of him as high priest of the quadrilateral. “I am not paying ‘homage to the square’!”, he spluttered, exasperated, twenty years into the series. “It’s only the dish I serve my craziness about colour in.” [1]

    I recount this in part because Jane Harris claims Albers as one of the chief influences in her own art, and because she, too, has become closely associated with a single geometric form: the ellipse. [2] For nearly thirty years now – longer than Albers and his squares – Harris has paid homage to the ellipse, or at least has seemed to. Works as disparate in time and appearance as Thrill (2006) and Night Ride (2017) are linked in their use of the form. As with Albers, though, this does not reflect a quixotic fondness on Harris’s part for a random shape. For her, too, geometric form is only a means to an end; a control by which she can measure her own process, and expand on it.

    Which is to say that Harris is arguably a history painter, although the history she paints is not of emperors and states but of the evolution of her own eye. In the 2007 works, the long, unbroken, brush-marked line with which she edged her forms played multiple roles. It held the com- position together; its fluctuations of direction and light created a figure- ground ambiguity that at times pushed the surrounded image forward and then, at the next turn, pushed it back again. As well as these, though, the line suggested the movement of Harris’s own hand, the process of the painting’s making and the time taken to make it. If there is a past in Harris’s work, there is always a concomitant future: the possibility of change, of what-comes-next. Seen en masse, her images often have the look of primitive life forms edged with pseudopods, Harris’s ambiguous line making them hover over the painted grounds below. Visually and historically, the images feel motile, anxious to get on, to evolve.

    And so they have. At first glance, her latest series of work has little to do with the last. Where those paintings felt somehow classical, new ones such as Turning Points (2017) feel almost cartoonish. The central figure in the painting seems to float in shallow water, casting a shadow on the surface below. Letting Slip (Four Small Blasts) (2017) calls Lichtenstein’s Whaam! inevitably to mind, although the four-part work is less Pop-ish than a clever study in mutability. Harris is, preeminently, a colourist. Her gentle rotation, across the quadriptych, of the central ellipse of her paintings turns the figures minimally to left and right. The fringe of ellipses around the edges of these become explosion marks, like a cartoon. But it is the pulse of the red centres of the works, two muted and two vibrant, that animates them, sets them in motion. Our eyes read colour as movement; an alchemy Josef Albers would have understood only too well. 

[1] Neil Welliver, ‘Alberson Albers’, Art News 64, no. 9, January 1966, p.69

[2] For Harris on Albers, see, for example, Interview between Ben Gooding and Jane Harris for Saturation Point, May 2017