Pam Hansford: After completing art school in the 1970s in Australia you spent several years in the UK. What was the focus of your work when you returned from England?
Julie Harris: On returning to Australia from England in 1980 I moved to the sandstone country of the MacDonald. The works from this period originate from living in the bush and the intimacy of that experience. I remember travelling back and forth from Sydney to the Hunter valley past the great swathes of newly cut cliffs of sandstone on the F3 freeway. I was intrigued by its mass effect and sustained objectivity.
The process of looking became very intimate and intense and I started grouping the works together in sets like the later ‘Walkthroughs’.
PH: Can you talk about some of the paintings and influences from this period?
JH: Some paintings from this period hint at aerial maps, the movement of water, branches becoming escarpments, such as the Bloodwood series. The panel structure allowed me to play with the work like a huge puzzle and order out of chaos was becoming the consistent theme.
I wanted to reduce the separation between my experience and myself. It’s a similar notion to the Mescaline drawings of Fautrier when he renders the texture of states not the vision of these states. In the same way the flavour of the MacDonald percolates into the work. I identify with Rothko when he writes: “The whole of man’s experience becomes his model and so it can be said that all art is a portrait of an idea”.
PH: Your work changes from 1988 to the early 1990s can you describe what was going on?
JH: In 1988 I moved back to Sydney and started experimenting with cut outs and collages. I used re-assembled unsuccessful works – it was very comforting to have a store of ready shapes like a pantry full of food! I also enjoyed the process of collage building in colour in the same way that Matisse talks of “cutting and carving colour”.
In the early 1990s I was travelling a lot between the Hunter, Bathurst and Sydney and the sweeps of countryside, fields of lucerne and crops transformed themselves into paint textures. I wanted to create the feeling of a mass effect like a bale of hay and the ‘paint bales’ create horizontal rhythms creeping in like a script. White took on a new importance for me: I was drawing with colour-matter, raw, simple and straight to the point.
PH: I very much like the way the ‘paint bales’ look and feel, can you say a little more about this series of work?
JH: For these works I used oil on board and a square format. The paint stayed high key and I concentrated on keeping the paint on the surface and flooding some of the backgrounds with glazes and veils. The textures of nature are transformed into textures of paint. As the series progressed the sense of rhythm became stronger, denser and almost script- like, leading directly into the Fence series
PH: Can you say something about the ‘Fence’ series painted in 1996-7? Are they an extension of similar ideas?
JH: These works are about rhythm as it makes its way across a surface. I was conscious of the compositions aligning themselves in harmonic proportions, in the same way Godfrey Miller speaks about his canvases forming a grid according to proportional ratios based on dynamic symmetry.
The way rhythm links to space also fascinates me and these paintings are worked as a continuous space from all sides on the floor.
PH: In 2002 you spent some time on the Shoalhaven River at the Bundanon studio. How did this experience influence your work?
JH: During 2000-2002 I was spending time at Garie Beach and the Shoalhaven and I developed a series of works I named the ‘Walkthroughs’. These are large paintings using several smaller canvases to make up the components, like assembling a giant jigsaw and problem solving in one.
The series of works called the ‘Walkthroughs’ are about walking through the landscape, how small details catch the eye and the way memories of things seen go into the storehouse of the brain. Water was seeping into the pictures and the movement of light as it plays on the surface of the river.
With the use of panels in the ‘Walkthroughs’ I wanted to create something that the viewer had to literally walk along or past. These works are about multiple viewpoints in the same way Cezanne establishes multiple views within a single painting.
The ‘Walkthroughs’ are also about the underlying structure in things, such as the repetitions found in fractal geometry. I was looking for underlying patterns and abstract qualities in the natural landscape and the ways in which the whole is repeated in the miniature. I think that so-called ‘primitive’ art, such as Mbuti, and traditional Aboriginal painting picks up on this.
PH: Do you find it difficult or easy to start a work? I ask because the way you speak about the endlessness of nature suggests you could choose to start anywhere, or that this boundlessness might be overwhelming!
JH: I’ve always started with automatic or stream of consciousness markings, like the Surrealists and Miro, and to a certain extent the works make themselves. I like the notion of paintings that aspire to the condition of music with no beginning or end.
PH: Can you describe your current work process?
JH: Rhythm, which has always been central to my work, is taken to a further extreme. I see the latest works as performances, like huge Rorschach marks that allow the viewer into the content.
As well as reflecting patterns of being I’m becoming more aware of the process of painting. The dripped paint and open canvas are at once surface and space and there are no longer shapes but zones, areas and fields.
PH: At first glance your work can sometimes appear unstructured but is this really the case?
JH: On the surface the works are accidental but underneath there’s a grid-like structure. I like to think of these paintings as choreographed: the colour becoming the notes of a musical arrangement. I very much like how Barnett Newman puts it: “Painter, a choreographer of space, creates a dance”.
The element of time is also critical in my recent work. I take the painting in and out of the sun and the effect I get varies according to the strength of the sunlight. The process has to be followed to its conclusion depending on the weather. The humidity and temperature create the paintings. I work horizontally and vertically, upside down and right side up. In this way the paint paints the painting as the result of the passage of time. These works are like Zen exercises and the rightness of the moment: If I don’t get it right they cannot be retrieved.
PH: You draw a great deal and have always done so. What is the relationship of drawing to your paintings?
JH: I believe in the repetition of doing something to build a language, a repository of information with marks and movements. I was also drawing directly from nature to build a personal script of signs. Each drawing is a signature moment in time and part of a series of successive works. For instance, my drawings are not illustrations of ideas but ways of seeing. The drawings strengthen knowledge, the repository for ideas and an accumulation of details. They are the seedbeds of paintings. They are also a way of playing as in the portraits.
PH: In the context of new technological developments painting is often described as an anachronistic pastime. How does your work relate to technology?
JH: Older technologies such as decoration, ornamentation, pattern and rhythm interest me. I’m fascinated with the way they can close the gap between cultures. Their universal nature suggests that it is no accident that ornamentation and pattern are often shared between cultures in different philosophical and symbolic contexts.
PH: If you had to reflect on your work as a whole how would you describe it?
JH: My use of rhythm and repetition reaches back to the early 1970’s and music is very important in the creation of my work. Landscape has always been integral to my painting not in the traditional Western sense but as a catalyst to inform the work. I find abstraction intellectually stimulating. The search to make a single image out of apparent chaos and to achieve some sort of spatial logic remains a challenge. I like the idea that one can have a continual space not one that is bound and finite…
-By Pam Hansford, independent arts writer