Alumnae Spotlight: Jen P. Harris

February 14, 2017 by

In her Iowa City studio, Jen P. Harris builds iconographic, contemporary mosaics with ink and wood, but when she arrived in WSW’s silkscreen studio in 2012, she had a very different type of project in mind. American poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi had invited her to design and edition a poster series for the fictional psychedelic rock band Rocket Fantastic, one of Calvocoressi’s literary creations.

A few years later, we’re touching base with the Ora Schneider Grant alumna who, between exhibiting new work and co-organizing Nasty Women of Iowa, made time to catch us up on her current practice—drones and all.

Before we start—I love this photograph! Your painting looks as though it’s part of the architecture. Let’s talk about this installation.

That piece in the photo is called Alchemists in the Garden. In 2015 I was invited by the New York Foundation for the Arts and The Forum at St. Ann‘s to be part of a group show at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, and I made Alchemists specifically for that exhibition. I designed the piece to be in conversation with the existing historic stained glass windows, which was very exciting. I wish it had been a permanent installation, because I can’t imagine it will ever work as well anywhere else! It now hangs in NYFA’s office­­­s in Dumbo.

Between New York and Iowa, you’ve recently exhibited a few series of modular works, including Alchemists. Why the move to working on multiple surfaces?

When I shifted my focus from oil on canvas to ink on paper, I had to change my thinking about presentation. Rather than framing the works on paper in the conventional manner, I began mounting and varnishing shaped ink paintings on wood so the works would function more like objects in the world rather than representations of it. This way of working led to an idea about combining interrelated components into large wall installations. The modular nature of the installations means that each piece has the potential to be endlessly under construction (and some pieces are under construction for a very long time!).

I try to retain a sense of this open-endedness in the finished works so that the experience of viewing them reflects and illuminates aspects of individual agency. Viewers are invited to participate in the construction of meaning and understanding by filling in the many gaps I leave open.

The more time we spend looking at your paintings, the more hidden imagery reveals itself—including figures that were once central subjects to your earlier ink paintings. Can you walk us through some of these images?

In doing research on late 60’s psychedelic poster art for the print project I completed at WSW in 2012, I was drawn to the imagery of early Tarot cards. Many of the artists making rock posters in California during that period had been referencing the Tarot, among other obscure and popular vernacular sources. I learned that
Tarot cards had first appeared in Europe during transitional time, between the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and began to think of their images as markers of a period of great uncertainty and change. They seemed very appropriate for our own time.

The cards themselves also have associations with divination, mysticism and insight, of course. I was interested in the mirror-like function of these images: they could be “read” in many ways. I worked intensively with Tarot imagery for several years and it remains a part of my visual vocabulary. In retrospect, I can see that those images, which were produced as woodcuts, were important to the overall development of my work as much for their formal elements (bold graphic lines, stylized figures, abstract arabesques) as their subject matter.

And how has your painting style progressed since?

In 2014 I moved to Iowa City. I was listening to the news in my studio a lot and feeling increasingly alarmed by the dystopian dimensions of the contemporary political, social, and environmental order. I introduced images of surveillance drones, binary code, the Ouroboros, and knots (among other things) and made densely layered images, broadening my inquiry into the possibilities of painting to describe the perceptual capabilities and difficulties of our particular moment in history.

For years, I’ve included organic forms and imagery in my visual worlds, often in relationship with images referencing technology. With Ghost Prairie, a 40-foot modular landscape painting first installed in my new home state of Iowa last year (2016), Native American prairie plants became central characters. After years of living in the Northeast, my encounters with the expanse of land in the Midwest has definitely impacted me and my work. I learned that Iowa is perhaps the most radically altered ecosystem in North America and wanted to make something connected to this particular place. I began researching and responding to colonial and industrial American history, and its aftermath. I wanted Ghost Prairie to evoke the simultaneous presence and absence of that which has been displaced or forgotten since the early 19th century, and the prairie plants became the central metaphor in my telling of that story.

Installation view of Ghost Prairie

As a painter, what drew you to WSW’s printmaking studio?

Prior to my residency at WSW, I spent six or seven years designing and printing agit-prop t-shirts for a living. Through this work, which included a lot of hand-drawn text, I developed a recognizable graphic style influenced by Russian avant-garde design. Eventually I stopped making t-shirts, but some of the aesthetic and technical characteristics of those screen prints were slowly making their way into my paintings. At that time, my paintings were large, photo-based, figurative, and oil. I applied to WSW in part because I was interested in more deliberately bringing these two parts of my creative work together. As it turns out, that decision marked an important turning point in my painting practice, which has since moved away from figures and oil paint and is now characterized by layered, translucent imagery and geometric forms.

 You’ve said before, “The poster is a vernacular art form that encapsulates a specific historical and cultural movement.” What cultural movements influenced the Rocket Fantastic posters?

I took my cues from artists who invented the popular art form that we now know as the psychedelic rock poster. Artists like Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse, and Bonnie MacLean treated existing conventions in music, art, literature, religion, and society as raw material to be combined into new forms. They appropriated iconography and styles from a wide range of sources with the goal of getting people’s attention.

This non-hierarchical approach to visual material — in which comics are seen as equivalent to old master paintings or found photographs — disregards conventional Western cultural hierarchies and instead implies that all images are part of a common visual vocabulary. I used these same tactics for Rocket Fantastic (and for much of the work I’ve made since). The particular sources I pulled from included sky charts, illustrations from the zodiac constellations, a Courbet painting, photographs of men on the moon and rocket launches, and other compelling found material.

Just one last question! What advice do you have for emerging women artists?

Be generous. And ask questions. What do you value? What kind of community do you want to build? Who is your audience and how will you reach them? What are you willing to give up to support a larger outcome? What are you not willing to give up? What do you need to do to take care of yourself? Last year I read a great essay by Jan Verwoert called Exhaustion & Exuberance about “ways to defy the pressure to perform.” I’d recommend it to any artist.

Jen P. Harris is a visual artist and educator based in Iowa, City. She received a BA in Studio Art from Yale University and an MFA from Queens College of the City University of New York. Her work has been exhibited nationally and she is the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Painting Fellowship and a Puffin Foundation grant, among others. She is currently is a participating artist in the Public Space One Near Future exhibition project and co-organizing the Nasty Women in Iowa exhibition, which runs February 17 – 18th.