Two doors down from a mechanic and across the road from a photography studio, Jeffrey Harris works and paints. It is a compulsion. Not to paint in his words renders him “frustrated and angry and depressed and very twitchy. I have got to work.” In his industrial space, he welcomes me with a firm shake of the hand. Some paintings are encompassed in bubble wrap; others rest uncertainly against the whitewashed brick walls. A lifetime of modes and styles. In winter, Harris works in the small office overlooking what only in summer becomes a work space. For decades now, Jeffrey Harris has been one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent painters. After living in Australia for twelve years, he returned in 2000. I talked to him about life back in the fast lane of South Dunedin.
I have just come from Wellington where they are exhibiting your work at the “Tender is the Night” exhibition at the National Art Gallery, have you been up to have a look?
No, no. I don’t actually travel round; I used to go to all the shows and that sort of thing but now no.
It got to be too many exhibitions?
Yeah, I don’t like the social aspect of the art world and I have seen a lot of shows.
What is it about the social aspect of the art world or the New Zealand art scene that you don’t like?
It’s sort of false, it’s just like all social situations where people expect, they ask you questions and a lot of it is promoting themselves in the art world.
Going back to the beginning of your career, you were awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1977, what effect did this have on your development as an artist here in Otago?
Well, it was a large studio so I was able to do large paintings whereas before, previously I would usually work in a small studio about the size of this room. So working on a larger scale of works was probably the main thing, but also there was quite a bit of attention on my work. It lifted my profile and I had more exhibitions.
What do you think of the artistic community in Dunedin then and now?
Yeah, it was more like a family back then, more supportive; now it is more money, fame-oriented. Fame and money is more, so artists are more, I wouldn’t say competitive, but it is different.
When did you open your own gallery?
About 2001, when I came back from Australia. I was in Australia for about twelve years and I came back in about 2000. I have always been fairly independent and I sell most of my work myself so yeah. I work outside the system to a certain extent.
Which is fun.
Yeah, well you are more independent. Other people look at your work and I am not happy with some of their interpretations.
Talking about the relationship between geography and style in your work, there is a tie between where you are and what you paint. What was it about your move across the ditch that led to such a change in style?
Well, I think I wanted to get away from New Zealand because a lot of my work was autobiographical and based on certain events in my life and I really wanted to make a break away from that. Perhaps it was because I was becoming trapped in a style or people were perceiving me in a particular way and I didn’t want [that], a lot of people have a perception of you and they want to keep that perception and they don’t want you to change.
And they want to perpetuate that?
Yes. It is satisfying for them and for dealers, it helps, the public is generally happier with something that is around the place. So I went to Australia to try and make a fresh start.
And what did you find there?
I found, it was more open. I found Australia more open than New Zealand, it was more, I guess it was exciting but with everywhere it becomes life going on. You get into a, not a rut, but a sort of, it loses its excitement.
One of the influences I was particularly interested in, in terms of your Australian work was the Aboriginal style that comes through, what made you decide to go down that track and what was it about the style that attracted you to it?
Aboriginal art is very spiritual and it is very raw and, very… I have already been very interested in the spiritual and that aspect of it in art and generally. It has a lot of depth and is very strong; a lot of the European stuff are second rate copies of what has already been done.
How did you go about acquiring the techniques, were the practices again self-taught or were you instructed by some artists over there?
I knew people, there was a lot of Aboriginal painting over there, but I really taught myself which I have done all my life. When I went to Europe I looked at paintings and when I was in Australia, I looked at and when I was here, when I started I looked at McCahon and Hotere. So yeah, I did the same thing in Australia.
Talking about your art in practice, how much is pre-planned or pre-conceived and how much is taken to chance in the process of creating a work?
It usually starts with an idea, but it is not totally preconceived. I try to develop it as I go along. So you may start with something, a picture, and it develops as you go along. So it is sort of half and half, it channels out of an idea and the work develops out of doing it.
In terms of categorising your works stylistically as abstract expressionist or expressionist, how do you react to such titles?
They are not titles that I use; they are titles that other people put on them. I am not really happy with them but there is nothing you can do about it, people like to say, my work is expressionist or this or that because it is much bigger than that. But people like to categorise things, I don’t like it because it is once again the labelling, so I always try to break out.
Do you prefer people to look at them from an open perspective?
What is your opinion of artistic influence, do you see it as a conversation across time?
I have always studied painting. When I first started I went to the library in Christchurch and discern all these art forms. I have always been fascinated by painting so I have looked into a lot and that has all fed into my work.
Your paintings and sketches are rendered in a number of symbols, each object communicates certain meanings and they ping off one another, what is it about communicating in this direct way that appeals to you?
It is just, painting is more of just painting, it is a story, I like there to be a whole of things to scan over in a work and I don’t know. Once again, it is looking at European painting, British painting, that I have seen in Europe and where they have all that symbolism and there is obviously something there that appeals to me and that I have sort of tried to do in my own way. I have invented my own mythology of some sort.
What is it about the cross may I ask, from start to finish it seems to be one of the dominant motifs in your work?
It was a means of communicating a certain intensity and that is one of the things my work was that I tried to convey ultimate states of being or experiences and the cross to me, because it was so prominent in early paintings, when I looked at the early painters and out of all the work I looked at, I was most intensely struck by this. From that point of view, it was a way to convey strong emotion, strong feeling. It was also important from the formal aspect, the shape, but it is a sort of recognisable image.
Absolutely, it is probably one of the most universal…
Yeah, sure. I like to see my work in the tradition of the painting all the way through and it is a way of slotting in there and a way of conveying a strong statement.
And then, jumping along to the noose which conveys a whole raft of things – punishment, death, etc. Why this image?
A lot of the early work, particularly in the seventies was not adolescent, but I was young. I felt the fragility of life, suicide and those sorts of uncertain things and choice too, in a lot of cases there is a road. These symbols are choices in life and paths to take. There is no noose much in my work anymore because it is to a certain extent associated with that earlier period in my life. It is a strong image again, but it is not as prevalent as the cross. Things like doors, windows, crosses have meaning and it is a way of conveying what I was feeling and the options available.
As a young person taking on the world, I think it is a pertinent idea to raise. We talked about scale before going from the small sketches to the larger works after being given more space, what is it you are able to do in one that you are less able to do in the other?
Well, I am fascinated by very small, finely detailed things and I am also fascinated by large bold statements. I know the way I work, there is no certain way there comes a point when I want to change, there is no one style that I find satisfying or that answers all the parts of me. These are all compartmental bits that make up the whole of me. I could never just do small things because then I have to have a reaction against that and I could never just do bigger works, I would want to do smaller works. It is fulfilling all these needs. It is just like different authors or different musicians.
Variety is the food of life. Speaking of which, how do you know something is finished?
You can’t do anymore really. You just work on something and you know something isn’t right so you keep on working and when there is no more you can do, you know it is finished. It is just when it is finished, when it works. When you have what you envisaged, conveying something. I have things which as really highly worked and go into a lot of detail and other things have different fractions.
Talking about your work ethic, do you work at any hour of the day or do you try to work in an orderly fashion?
I work during the day. I used to work during the night when I was young; I work from 9-5 like a regular job.
What advice can you give about action and doing? I think students are some of the best procrastinators in the world.
I have to make art, it is a compulsion. I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day not doing it, I would feel frustrated and angry and depressed and very twitchy. I have got to work. It is just like a drug. You get out there and you start your work and you feel ok, and yeah. It is something I want to do, it is not like I want to put it off until tomorrow, I want to do it today. It is a compulsion and I can’t imagine not doing it.
At the same time, if you are in here for most of the day, where then do you find your inspiration, the faces and landscapes of your work?
My imagination is, I have thousands of ideas and images so there is no problem with, it all comes through my imagination, my ideas, things that I might think. You are doing a painting and then you can see another five paintings from that one and oh, there is stuff down there, from books and stuff like that. It doesn’t really come out of my personal life anymore, so that was earlier. When I went to Australia, the subject matter and my personal life stopped. I am pretty happy with that.
Do you think you can get too close to the process?
To a certain extent. It was a little self-indulgent or sort of like a soap opera. Yeah, I wanted to do other things.
What sort of themes are you interested in at the moment?
It is hard to say. Just everything really. I am more interested in making stronger, simpler statements.
Why is that?
They are more… it is really hard to talk about what you are doing now actually.
Because it is in process, I will come back you in five years’ time. Have you ever kept any works for yourself and why?
There are certain works that are more personal than others. It is not that important, yeah, some works are more personal than others. They have more meaning, but that is just for me.