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20/20 Vision An interview with Zach Harris
Rajesh Punj

There is something pleasurable whilst being intuitively irresponsible about spoiling a document; of rolling a pencil over it with the intention of applying free reason as free reign. But the action to introduce oneself, to imprint one’s identity upon material matter is what is intrinsic to our being in and of a moment; of engaging by disengaging with one’s circumstances. And for California born and based artist Zach Harris the intention of wanting to impress upon everything something of himself, has matured into a deeper language, that he explains as “regressive and progressive at the same time”. Deciding “it is all based on a stream of consciousness. I never know what is going to come. And it is kind of regressive, kind of what I did when I was a child. I drew all day at school. So all of this is about me getting back to being a kid again. But then it is also art historical, referencing the highest art. Raphael, Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and all of those overtones, whilst still being childlike, very simple. And I like that, regressive and progressive at the same time.”As the aesthetics of his ‘alter’ pieces are as sophisticated as they appear adolescent.

For Harris each of his works has its own identity, as though the subconscious trappings of many different minds. Never returning to a particular approach or palette, the artist sees each work as a universe that is as much autobiographical as it is a new adventure for the artist. “I draw, I meditate, and I sit in front of a work, and really think day-byday, so I am conscious of what I can accomplish myself; and spend ten, twelve, fourteen hours, getting myself into that state. So you do it and you do it just by working, and it is easy after a few hours to find that intensity again. Saying that, I struggle everyday. I am impatient, I worry – I don’t know what I am doing, I don’t know where the work is going. It is not easy at all. And I have never done this before – each composition is a new proposition.” Pressed about whether he draws as much from reality as he does from the advantages of abstraction, Harris explains his approach as about being able to immerse himself in a prolonged moment, that stretches as long as it takes one to feel differently. Where contemporary artappearsto be animated by a visual immediacy, Harris’ works are determined by slow and serious time. Seeing our lives as open to much deeper dimensions. “I really want to create deep space and deep time. So you can go into space, and you go into time, and you spend time in this illusionistic world. I think illusion is something that is the basis of reality, and painting especially, because it is just on the surface where the distortion is happening.”

And against any illusion that they are decorative, there is in Harris’ work an incredible lexicon of lavish ideas, that sees snakes devouring money, contorted cats wrestling puppets,(Dutch graphic artist) Escher like hands drawings themselves, a crucifixion harbouring rats, and cupids flying over seascapes. As mythological symbols, science, and the solar system are all employed as sensitive scenery for each of his carefully crafted masterpieces. For which the ambition of Harris’s work is positively spurred by the artists’ inventive imagination, and intention to explain everything as though the illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s ‘A Brave New World’; a world not too distant from Harris’ in which reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning alter everything irrevocably.

Recalling the Old Masters, for Harris’ use of wooden panels and integrated frames, an individual work’s almost biblical appearance is as a consequence of the hand craved detail and satisfying symbolism that nourishes the central depiction. And like the Old Masters the artist sees perspective as integral to the work, and the unfolding narrative.

More easily unexplained, Harris’ imagination borrows from two worlds, that which we are in when we speak, and then another more introspective universe, that has him scrutinise over the anatomy of an artwork, for a invariable amount of time. The detail as visual dynamite, as Harris explains, is born over a period of many weeks and months. As panels areindividually cut into, sprayed over, meticulously painted, and then mounted into an accompanying frame, that has all of the same technique applied to it, and for its appearance could be a work in itself; challenging the final image. Which serves to illustration the relationship of the inner and outer order of things. As the artist explains how each work “goes through so many phases, that the painting looks good but the frame is terrible. The frame really contradicts the painting, and then towards the end it becomes an entire entity, which then leads to my working on the whole thing at once.” And at a moment when we are saturated with standard images and information, Harris purposefully applies himself to the task of creating something other; that serves as salvation for our imaginations.


Rajesh Punj: What interested me yesterday when looking over your exhibition catalogue was of the construct of your work, by which I mean the order of things – that the frame and the central panel become one and the same thing entirely? How did that come about? And is everything as much based in reality, as it is on the otherworldly?
Zach Harris: I trained mostly as a painter, that is my first love, and I have spent a long time looking at paintings, and drawings. Old Master paintings, contemporary art, Abstract Expressionism, I can mention as an influence. So I got into painting, and then I spent alot of time in churches. Alot in Europe, and I spent time in India, and I did murals, and decorated meditation spaces that were for contemplation, and for focusing and going inward. In a church the whole programme of images, is about the painting and its frame, the alter, (glass) windows and architecture. It is about everything existing together within a spiritual space. For me the distinction between what is art and what isn’t, or what is fine art and what is craft (doesn’t exist). So with my work I am playing with those dichotomies, where the frame, as you said, is no longer a frame; and then there is also the question of focus verses periphery. Of how I originally didn’t want to make a painting or a sculpture, but an object (that was also a) painting; so I wanted to do both. I wanted to make the painting almost a meditate object, and the frame as a strategy to keep you looking; to keep you focused. So sometimes (there is one work here and another one back there), where the painting is ten by eight inches, by the frame is three feet by four, and it is all working to keep it as a container, which is really small.

RP: My immediate thought is that when you conceive of a work, are you deciding the frame in the same moment?
ZH: Each one is different. Initially I would work on a painting for two years. I would spend a long time with a work.

RP: So you would concentrate on a work (like Silver Sky2014-17) without its frame initially?
ZH: Yes it could read as a panel. I may have many of them going on at once, and then I will choose one in particular I like more, that this is a good painting on its own. So it has to be good on its own without any help that encourages me to think I could exhibit that on the wall. But then I thought why stop? It is not that hard to make a good painting, it is hard but a lot of people do it, it is interesting, but also it wasn’t really enough for me and I wanted to make an object. I wanted to get into geometry and carving, spatial reliefs and to extend the painting. So the painting would have bigger implications outside of itself.

RP: Thus by implication you are inviting the audience to focus more intently upon your work and its frame?

ZH: Oh yes, and I think the more I am focused while making it, the more the viewer focuses, or the viewer feels that intensity of concentration as a heightened awareness; as part of a visionaries’ kind of tradition. It maybe I like to create part visionary, part religious, part meditative image; for which I am seeking to create an almost psychedelic experience in a painting. We all know when you like an artwork, ’you can’t figure it out’, ‘you don’t know what you are looking at’, ‘it is incredible’, ‘you don’t know how it’s done’; and you are just mesmerised for a long time. So that is what I feel like I wanted to experience as the artist and the viewer; because that was the most valuable thing to do for people, and for the world. It is not a political statement, but it is a value that is missing from our present world. (Because of the nature of everything) it seems more and more important now to spend time with something.

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