This exhibition samples paintings, drawings and gouaches created by Julie Harris from 1975 to 2006 and introduces this significant body of work to a wider public for the first time.
On the surface Julie Harris’s paintings have an accidental aspect to them not unlike Ralph Balson’s Matter paintings, or the poured paintings of Dale Frank. She loves to explore textural effects and the automatic techniques of pouring and trailing paint, for example Grose Valley, 2006, where paint is enjoyed for its material qualities. She has a disciplined yet relaxed approach and typically finds her way into a painting by the Surrealist approach of automatic marks and accidents. The brush is allowed to wander over the surface like a text across a page in a series of automatic marks. She writes: “I begin to work and the painting slowly starts up a physical rhythm but instead of burying the marks, and repeating them in successive layers leaving only traces of the original, they are washed away.”
Using principles of indeterminacy Harris creates an infrastructure of multiple layers that grow only to disappear, fracture then reassemble into a surface that consummates a material form. This process is evident in pieces from the early 1990s, such as Portrait Series Number 5. About these works she remarks: “Instead of being an adjunct, colour is now determining the forms. Painters have always taken control of the colours they use and I like the idea of an explosive effect. Delacroix taught us about the dramatic use of a colour that “doesn’t lie on the surface but erupts from it”. I try not to choose colours but trust they will find their own relationships within the painting.”
Sometimes the artist’s works are about what to look at and how to see it, for example “The Walkthrough” series; often they are more meditative explorations of pictorial and natural harmony, such as Pulpit Rock, 2002; many have a lyrical, fluid, and informal mode, using a palette full of rich colours. Often she builds up her paintings in an all-over action allowing jewel-like pigments to seep through veils of wash, as in Untitled, 2004. Like David Aspen’s work many of her forms are abstracted from the landscape and often mimic a play of light layered over the whole surface, creating a synthesis of energy and rhythm. This all-over quality creates an ephemeral but powerful ontology of colour and she is fascinated by those intangible qualities to be found in the air, wind and weather.
Harris’s work moves beyond the representation of everyday realities and she often abstracts patterns from their natural context. She comments: “I wanted to develop a new way of looking and understanding the absoluteness of nature. I didn’t want to represent the landscape but play with the subject itself. I developed a great interest in patterns and finding the underlying structure in things.” In this sense Harris’s work follows a trajectory so well described by Piet Mondrian: “There are made laws, ‘discovered’ laws, but also laws – a truth for all time. These are more or less hidden in the reality which surrounds us and do not change. Not only science, but art also, shows us that reality, at first incomprehensible, gradually reveals itself, by the mutual relations that are inherent in things.”
Many of Harris’s paintings are also a straight celebration of the joy of painting itself. Harris is very much one of those artists who speaks their relationship to the world through the studio, the medium of paint, and through the history of painting itself. She comments: “To be part of a larger discourse is why I still find painting exciting: Miro’s constellations, the staccato-like marks of Van Gogh, Cézanne’s uniformity, Pollock’s drips, Whisson’s space and the clarity of Fra Angelico and Piero Della Francesca. The gardens at Giverny inspired Monet to paint vast still-lives, and Matisse created a single image by combining foreground, background and figure. There is a huge pool of visual knowledge, a dialogue which painters down through history have added to. Fundamental design laws have been formed which have gone into the collective conscious of painters and this needs to be acknowledged.”
Over the last 30 years Harris has developed a pictorial language of considerable integrity. She has created an organic and inclusive body of work and in it found an apt metaphor for communicating the shifting structure of her experience. In the following interview the artist talks about her latest works as performances. However if one looks across the years it seems as if each painting is not so much an isolated recital but can be understood like a musical score with the individual parts calling and responding through reference and echo, gradually expanding into a larger composition.
-By Pamela Hansford, Sydney based Art Writer