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Jane Harris was interviewed by Ben Gooding
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I'd like to start by asking you about the geometric structures you devise which underpin the actual painting. These are incredibly elegant elliptical forms, often repeated or mirrored with subtle alterations. Could you talk a bit about your process in terms of how you arrive at these forms? I'm particularly interested in the nature of the edges and the illusionistic effects of perspective.
I came upon using the ellipse as my prevalent form, almost by chance, 27 years ago.
I was at the time making works which were based more on observation and wanted to
draw an image of a fountain pool. I had to make this circular pool in perspective,
hence the need for making an ellipse. Rather than doing this freehand, which was
my usual practice at the time, I decided to find out how to make a geometrically
correct ellipse. Producing this became a bit of an epiphany as I was struck by how
exciting it was to make a shape that could be seen both as a flat shape and a shape
in perspective, simultaneously. The ellipse has two focal points, which is key to
my way of thinking and perceiving the world. This realisation concurred perfectly
with my continuing desire to make paintings and drawings which combine these two
possibilities in a constant shifting between one state and another.
The introduction of the edging with recurring chains of semi-
Oh Oh 1998 Oil on linen 71 x 127 cm UK Government Art Collection
I find this illusory quality of the ellipse fascinating. This experience of at once seeing a flat surface and a recessive depth seems to engender modernist traditions of abstraction, especially concerning flatness of surface, while also paying homage to more classical sensibilities regarding perspective and the attempt to imbue the object with the impression of spatial depth. The paintings seem to oscillate playfully between the two paradigms. I wonder if you could expand on the traditions you consider the work to be bounded by, and how your formative education grounded your approach to painting?
You also speak about how, even now, the work relates back to a childhood activity of colouring in geometrical shapes that you would draw out, which I find wonderfully compelling. It’s interesting how, despite the intellectual rigours of an art education, you return somehow to the pure aesthetic pleasures that a child becomes playfully absorbed in.
Well, I’ve had a lot of art education! And looking back, I would say that each stage
was instrumental in extending the possibilities for me as a painter, although some
of the experiences at the time were ones to react against. My foundation course at
Bournemouth School of Art in the mid-
In my first year of BA at Camberwell School of Art my most abiding memory was being asked to make a Plasticine 3D model of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity from the National Gallery. This was REALLY hard for me as I am not a natural sculptor and have difficulty perceiving things ‘in the round’, but it was a fantastic challenge. It gave me a much deeper insight into Piero’s mathematical and geometric precision. His controlled placement of figures and structures in space to create a sense of harmony, serenity and symbolic meaning, without being obvious, was a revelation to me at the time. Such elements in his work remain very important to me, along with his exquisitely restrained use of colour and his controlled method of painting.
During this time I also discovered the work of Patrick Caulfield and was particularly drawn to his elegant and witty way of combining different ways of representation in one painting, but without the painting as a whole feeling disrupted.
Two other artists who had an impact on my development, and to whom I return frequently,
are Morandi and Cézanne. In particular I look to Morandi for the way light interferes
with form, drawing attention to some edges and diminishing others. With Cézanne it’s
the way in which any one single brushmark can ‘sit’ on the surface and represent
depth and form simultaneously. I’m also always intrigued by the structure of their
Of course I could name many other 20th century artists who have been important (Agnes
Martin, Bridget Riley, Ellsworth Kelly). And recently I have returned to looking
at early Renaissance paintings. I love their ingenious ways of representing and structuring
the movement of earthly and heavenly figures in architectural spaces, denoting the
passage of time, in a sort of strip-
Being absorbed is key to the whole process of painting for me. Why do it otherwise?!
Both acts -
Pine 1999 Oil on canvas 193 x 244 cm Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Collection
Your very particular use of colour is one of the most immediate things one is struck
by when encountering the work. There is often a lustre to the surface which seems
to illuminate or activate the space in which these elliptical forms hang. I understand
you reached a point in your practice when you started to use metallic pigments in
the paint -
I have always had a somewhat reductive approach to the use of colour in my paintings.
With the development of the elliptical paintings this became more focussed, as I
only needed to use two colours in any one painting. But the tonal and chromatic relationships
became paramount. In addition, I introduced the continuous brush marks that surround
the edge of the form and which create, through their relationship to light, a sort
From quite early on I started to include metallic colours as part of my palette and noticed how much more play with light I could achieve. At a certain point, around the year 2006 I think, I started to add metallic colours in varying degrees to every mix I made, and I continued to do this until very recently. I see this lustrous effect as being both seductive and disconcerting as it draws you into the painting but then disallows you from having only one point of viewing the painting, both literally and figuratively.
In the past year I have reintroduced some unmixed colours without metallics to certain paintings. But this is just a continuation of my own research into the qualities of reflection and absorption of light that I want to draw attention to.
Familiars – Devil’s Advocate (diptych) 2014 Oil on canvas
260 x 145 cm
The illuminative quality this metallic pigment gives the surface can be visually
arresting! At one moment it is reflective and so seems to have a solidity and impenetrability,
as if the surface is made of something substantial, but moving by degrees around
the work, it shifts into a more enshadowed tone and appears void-
The differentiating factor often seems to be the directional flow of the brush marks which, like a butterfly wing, makes the light behave in beguiling ways. This seems to mirror the way in which the elliptical forms themselves have a duplicity of perception. This positive/negative polarity seems to underpin much of your work.
Yes, this is all true. When I started to make paintings using variations of the elliptical
form, with repetitions of small semi-
This complexity was further enhanced by the introduction of metallic paints and a more precise recognition on my part of how a different intensity, direction and type of light can alter the way the painting looks to dramatic effect. This is of course further emphasised by where we stand in relation to the canvas. Positive and negative areas become more ambiguous or contingent on our bodily position.
Slowing Down 2016 Oil on poplar panel 40 x 40 cm
Stranger 2010 Oil on canvas 66 x 76 cm Collection FRAC-
I also understand you build up the paintings using several layers of colour. I was interested to know if there was a similarity to the way in which gilders work, when they use a black, red or green ground underneath the gold as it has such a low tinting strength. Presumably there will also be some textural quality discernible from the preceding brushwork?
I build the paintings up in several layers, usually four, including a base colour
using earth reds, greens or ochres. This was initially to provide a mid-
All my paintings, whether large or small in format, are made up of methodically applied, regular brush marks, and underlying layers certainly are subtly discernible. This gives the paintings a textural quality and also confuses somewhat our perception of where exactly is the painting's surface, another aspect of my wish to disrupt our sense of certainty.
Strange Attractor 2003 Oil on canvas 198 x 183 cm Private collection
In many of your paintings, however, you use strikingly brilliant opaque colours which,
as you say, do not have a metallic content and so absorb light in a dense, flat manner.
This creates an almost ‘portal-
My initial choice of colours usually comes from seeing two colours next to, or in
close proximity to, each other somewhere. This juxtaposition can be from any source
– inside, outside, the urban or natural environment -
I keep a sort of mental library of these colour combinations. In the realisation
of a painting my process can work both ways. Sometimes I decide first on the form
or forms I am going to use and then draw on this bank of colours to decide which
ones to use. Or, conversely, I know I want to use two (more recently three) colours
together, and I think of the appropriate elliptical form for this. I want to stress
at this point that much of what I do in relation to colour is actually intuitive,
or trial and error, so although there is a great deal of planning at the drawing
stages, the colours are assessed and re-
I want to create depth and space which is ambiguous and intangible while also accentuating the physical and surface qualities of the painting, so the decisions I make about the hue, tone, saturation, absorption and reflection of each colour are paramount in attaining this ambiguity.
Gleamers Silver (diptych) 2016 Woodcut on paper 35 x 73 cm. Edition of 30, published by Rabley Contemporary.
One device you use very often in your compositions is the repetition of an identical geometric shape. These will be centred perfectly within the picture plane and act almost as a diptych… What is the attraction of this particular format?
In 1982 I was awarded the Boise Travelling Scholarship from the Slade School to spend
two months in Japan to look closely at Japanese gardens. This was an extraordinary
experience for me which had a profound impact on the development of my work. In one
of the Zen dry gardens a small raked sand mound was created which referenced, and
echoed, a mountain which could be seen beyond the wall and in the distance. At a
certain point the mound and the mountain could be viewed together, the mountain exactly
above the mound, and, because of the rules of perspective, the mountain appeared
to be exactly the same size as the mound, if seen as if on a two-
In 2002 I curated an exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton titled
‘Once Again’, on the theme of the double in art. This was predicated on a painting
in Tate Britain called the Cholmondeley Ladies, a painting which has captivated me
for years. There seems to be a human fascination with seeing the same thing, or nearly
the same thing, twice, conjuring possible thoughts about double-
In recent years I have painted a number of actual diptychs (also triptychs and quadriptychs)
which allow me to play more with the direction of the brushmarks and how these affect
the tonal relationships of one panel to another. This further enhances the instability
and dynamism at odds with the static symmetry, or near-
It's also interesting to note, in the light of your time in Japan, the way in which you surround each geometric form with a continuous pulled brush mark... This is very reminiscent of the way gravel is raked around the rocks and other objects in Japanese dry gardens...is there something about the manner in which you manipulate the paint in terms of brushwork that seeks to be evocative of these Zen actions?
In earlier paintings and watercolours, after my return from Japan, I attempted to
represent these raked rock ‘mountains’ by making images of cone-
My response to a new idea or visual experience is like a magpie snooping and stealing
whatever takes its fancy. If it is something that has longer-
I'd also like to ask you about your recent body of woodcuts. This is a departure from painting; can you talk about why you decided to start experimenting with this process and how it relates to your broader practice?
I’ve actually only made one wood-
For me, the aspect of printmaking which I am perhaps surprisingly most attracted
to is the possibility to create an even, flat surface, clearly defined forms and
seductive colour combinations. I’m both a huge fan of of the screen-
I understand the design is laser-
I’m not sure about this, but I have to admit I’ve never tried. The aspect of printmaking I have most enjoyed, in the few attempts I have made, has been working with printmaking professionals. I have found this ‘handing over’ of certain responsibilities and phases of the process to my collaborators a completely new and somewhat thrilling, if quite scary, experience. I admire printmakers and their level of attentiveness enormously but I don’t think I am ‘in love’ with the process in the same way that I am with handling a paintbrush or a pencil. I guess that’s why I chose painting from an early age. I would add, however, that I have discovered how important it is to be present at each stage of the printmaking process to discuss the fine details.
Also, I was very excited when the idea of the laser cutting was introduced, both
for the woodcut and the embossed screen-
Jane, thank you for such an intriguing overview of your practice.