Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol 35 no. 1. 28 February 1972
Art Review — Jeffrey Harris Exhibition
Jeffrey Harris Exhibition
Peter McLeavey Gallery — 147 Cuba St.
Jeffrey Harris is a painter. That's saying quite a lot. There are people around who paint now and then, and there may be as many who imagine themselves to be artists. He is a painter, painting all the time, even when there's no brush in his hands. He's no fanatic, rather he is an easy going young man with an unobtrusive but real sense of humour. This is in his paintings, but quietly. And there is love-love large and inseparable from his creative impulse.
He lives with his wife, Joanna Paul also a considerable painter in a cottage on the cliff edged ancient hills north of Dunedin. Joanna Teaches art in Dunedin. He has taught art but paints full time when he can afford to. He can't afford not to-the scope of his artistic undertaking is such that he has the work of many lifetimes ahead of him He's got a lot behind him, even though he's in his early twenties. No formal training, thankfully. He worked in a draper's shop till he was eighteen or so, painting occasionally and drawing. Then he committed himself to painting. Michael Smither saw some of his watercolours, encouraged him, gave him a room in his and Hotere's house in Dunedin 1970. He painted, ate, and slept in that room for a year and had a few exhibitions locally. He did not sell much, but he did arouse a lot of interest in his work.
In 1971 he continued to live in Dunedin, painting, teaching now and then, and marrying Joanna Paul, And exhibiting in Dunedin and Christchurch.
This exhibition at the Peter McLeavey gallery is his first in the North Island. It will be open until the third of March. There are six large paintings on show. All have religious titles and themes. I am unwilling to describe pictures, let alone criticise them, but these seem to invite description rather than criticism
In Deposition for instance, a wan and spavined woman clings to the leg of the undaunted Christ ripe for the cross. Like bystanders around an accident victim, flattened and pathetic faces cluster, almost as afraid to move as they are to speak. Behind them a frantic, uplifting landscape, and in the mixed up fields ambiguous lovers lie. This is a large painting, and the groupings and the weight of the people in it recall not a few old masters. Despite the theme there is a cooling absence of melodrama, effected by confident rather than histrionic colouring, and carefree, not careless drawing.
It would not be hard to look at these pictures and conclude that Jeffrey Harris cannot draw, and that Jeffrey Harris is an artist without niche in the unified growth of NZ art.
That JH can draw there is no doubt. The finely detailed drawings he has exhibited elsewhere, and his earlier, leaf twined paintings prove this. But it has never been rote drawing. The details are of secondary importance. It is the bold, assured distortion and emphasis that he can give to a bush, a building, a hill, that is significant, — his emphasis and his depth.
"..the artist today ought to be a living embodiment of the entire history of art. In our time each new work must constitute a decision as to what is living and what is dead in the painting of the past. The artist's rumination upon the history of art is thus a rumination upon himself as well, upon his taste, his intellectual interests, social judgements, the symbols that move him. Not individual genius but this double rumination of the artist upon his aesthetic legacy and upon his own appropriation of it, is the source of meaningful creation in this epoch of historical self-consciousness.
Harold Rosenburg, "Arshile Gorky: The Man, The Time, The Idea".
It would also be easy to form the wrong conclusions concerning his relative position in contemporary painting. The words 'naive' and 'primitive' are overheard. While these are no longer pejorative terms, they are, anyway, inaccurate here. He has had no formal training, sure. But the informal training he has given himself, and his well directed dedication have set him above the dulling dance that most young artists meander in. He has assimilated a profound but not unmanageable body of art history, being especially familiar with the art of this century. Picasso, Kokoschka, Bacon, Chagall, Spencer, as far as names are useful, and oh hell so many others mean so much to him. And of yore.
Vander Weyden, Bellini, Goya, are still real. Some of the Surrealists' influences are his too.
In his Supper at Emmaus a haloed Christ stands hand on heart before a brilliant blotted landscape. Hands appear from the top of the painting, either highlighting or letting drop a smaller Christ on a crucifix. And in the Adoration of Christ figures, as Egyptians, gesticulate before another Christ — is it a bloody coloured de Chirico statue or is he alive? Those crossed sticks in the background, are they telegraph poles or are they current crucifixes?
Jeffrey Harris has transcended his studies and the influences other artists have made upon him. He has carefully chosen the eternal themes and the grand ambition of the old masters. He is painting these themes, just painting them (no gimmicks) with an unclouded eye and an unconstrained brush.