Virginia Billeaud Anderson
In 2009 I wrote a catalogue essay for Roberta Harris’s Dallas museum retrospective, which is the reason I know she has been using some of the same pictorial signifiers since the beginning of her career. Birds, Grids and Other Symbols at the Jung Center through January 30 is an avowal of how interiorly grounded are those visual associations. I talked to the artist about her iconography.
Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You just closed the exhibition Roberta Harris: Recent Paintings and Works on Paper at Houston Baptist University in which you showed over 20 artworks created in 2011 and 2012. Are the Jung Center works new?
Roberta Harris: Six pieces predate 2012, and all of the others were created in 2012 except one bronze I finished on New Years day. A few from 2012 were exhibited at Houston Baptist University.
VBA: Describe the Jung Center exhibition, how many artworks are you exhibiting, what are their subject matters, and materials.
RH: The show has 32 pieces with depictions of birds and a few of my other standard motifs. I’m exhibiting five large paintings, and ten smaller collage paintings, all made in 2012. In the atrium is an edition of 5 bronze birds, each painted in a different style, the last one completed on January 1, 2013. I’m showing two circular paintings and four collage paintings from 1987 because their symbols relate to the newer works. Another gallery holds works on paper, all new.
VBA: How comforting to see bronzes that are a manageable size, given the monumentally sized sculptures you produced in the past, one of which required structural engineering. And there was no need for welding.
RH: This is the first time I worked in bronze, and yes it was a pleasure to work on this scale.
VBA: The largest sculpture in your portfolio is a “bird” with moon and star components that calls to mind Miro’s monumental sculpture, so let’s talk about birds.
RH: They allude to healing and regeneration. In many cultures they emblemize inner journeys, prophecy, visions, and spiritual enlightenment, and, also bridging worlds and past-life connections.
VBA: I remember the “Ka.”
RH: Yes, from studying depictions of birds in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and temple carvings I learned the bird represents “Ka” which translates to “spirit.” The “Ka” arrived at birth and lived on after death, and stood for the creative and sustaining power of life. My birds in flight denote a life force.
There’s one more thing about the birds. We've never talked about this before but I want to share it. For the past few years, I have had a recurring thought about what it might have been like to be inside a cramped boxcar, hurtling through the darkness, on my way to a death camp, a memory that’s been with me ever since visiting the Holocaust Museum in Budapest in 2010. As I understand, not knowing the direction they were headed in, many prisoners wrote their last words, and pushed notes and letters through cracks or small openings of the train car hoping they would be found. In some of the letters, it was mentioned that they never heard birds singing while at the death camps. As it turned out, birds would not come close to the camps because of the stench and fumes of death. I was doing bird paintings before knowing this, and reflecting back, I’m certain I was projecting a vision of hope.
Roberta Harris, Fire, Fire, 2012, Acrylic on Paper, 50" x 38 1/2"
VBA: For forty years you have painted checkerboards and stairs.
RH: My rectangles are Ziggurats, ancient temple steps, and the grid and checkerboard patterns found in Etruscan, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Mayan art and architecture. Many cultures employ a visual approximation of stair steps to speak of higher realms and enlightenment.
VBA: You often lay down grid patterning as invisible ground for imagery.
RH: Even if invisible, it has subliminal force. I put it out there so it can work magic for the viewer. Repetitive patterning is akin to a mantra.
VBA: This esoteric approach bows to Mondrian whose work you studied at MOMA when you lived in New York.
RH: As well as my father’s craftsmanship. He spent his life creating glass installations. My mother was a mosaic artist.
Roberta Harris, Ziggurat II, 2012, Enamel and Acrylic on Paper, 50" x 38 1/2"
VBA: Your time in New York at Parsons, and completing your Whitney Museum Fellowship, exposed you to the work of important artists, and we’ve talked about how significantly it influenced you. Warhol’s repetitions mimicked Jasper John’s flag and letter grids. Stella was a major influence, so was Lucas Samaras. Rauschenberg taught you innovation and you subsumed Pat Steir’s manner of working in both the real and metaphysical realms.
RH: Rauschenberg’s vision! You do something, and then do something different. Agnes Martin was showing grid paintings at Betty Parson’s Gallery and she was brilliant, her work was meditative, peaceful, about seeking peace and calm. I admired its complex simplicity. Louise Nevelson’s sawed-up fragments and found objects were influential. She was a glorious woman, all about dedication to her craft, bold and audacious. Twombly taught me subtlety with his delicate art. At the Whitney his paintings seemed to cast a pink glow, it felt like walking through air. From Joan Snyder, I learned to be gutsy, from Pat Steir, I learned grids, and less is more.
VBA: You’ve made clear statements about your belief in a collective unconscious, the pre-existent forms and primordial archetypes humans hold in their psyches, which were described by Jung. I’m compelled to point out a bit of ironic linkage between you and Bert Long, who is very sick, and who in 2011 exhibited at the Jung Center artworks inspired by Jung’s personal journal. Bert opens a show on February 28 at Houston Baptist University.
RH: I believe there are forms, shapes, images, patterns, and ideas that we carry inside us as part of the human species, since the beginning of time.