NORTH ADAMS -- Painter Jen P. Harris melds systems scientific and mystical in order to examine the way humans look at universes, both wider and inner.
Harris' work is part of "Other Hudson Chapter One," currently showing at MCLA Gallery 51, and focusing on artists from the Hudson Valley in New York.
Primary among Harris' inspiration have been tarot card and Rorschach test imagery, which she has coupled on canvas and paper in layered ways that address the forms self-analysis take. Her interest came largely in pairing the two methods -- one ages old, the other very modern -- visually.
Harris points out that although there is debate of the actual origin of tarot cards, the earliest historical evidence is during the Middle Ages. She was attracted to them as part of the process by which people tried to make sense of a changing universe and how that continues to this day.
"The Europeans were really understanding that the world was much bigger than they thought for the first time," Harris said. "The tarot emerged out of that period of exploration and expanding world view. Tarot is still around in this contemporary day. "
"Part of what drew me to it was thinking about the uncertainty of the world we live in 2013 as being very different, and yet having parallels with the way the world view of the Europeans was being shifted and broken open when they created the tarot. I was just thinking about what kind of function these images have today."
As a psychological tool that became popular in the 1960s as a way of exploring the inner workings of a person, in order to uncover their approach to the outer world, the imagery of the Rorschach test became as iconic as the tarot. It also matched it as a process of understanding and self-examination.
Using the two in her work has become part of a learning process for Harris, as well as a creative one.
"I've been researching as I've been making the work," she said. "I came to the imagery totally into it without knowing much about it. I don't even really remember how that happened. It was definitely an intuitive choice, and as I would start working with the images more, I became more interested in it."
Harris is interested in the ways we seek to explain reality, particularly in the realm of science, and that interest goes way beyond Rorschach tests and into the realm of physics, which informs her work and gives her insight to the ways it might be viewed by different people.
"Modern physics is very strange stuff," said Harris. "There are theories that our observation of physical processes influences them, so there's this whole idea of seeing something changing the way it's behaving, which plays into this imagery, I think."
As she moves forward with her work, she finds her latest paintings are related to what has come before them, but has grown to a new level of visual complexity.
"I started out with this work building the image through multiple layers," Harris said. "The newer work has even more of that, so the numbers of layers are increased, so the way the imagery on the different layers is interacting is more complicated."
Part of this complexity includes maps, which have become an actual component of the visual presentation, as well as the overreaching concept of these are -- tools to give order to the complexity.
"It's almost like the map is the central container for everything else and the other imagery interacts with the map that's in a piece," said Harris. "I generally arrive at the imagery through a really intuitive process of trying stuff out and searching for images and seeing what makes sense, but the map thing started with looking at constellations and charts."
"It's a natural transition to go to that from the tarot, to me. It's another orientation system and it's also very ancient, so it connects tot he tarot but it's this old way of thinking that's pre scientific, and yet the constellations also do tie into science, but they're really much more about mythologizing and symbols that are pretty hard science."
Harris ties these influences together by the commonalities, but once they're combined on a canvas, it creates a situation in which viewers might have to come up with a process all their own in order to disseminate the what the painting is telling them. In this way, Harris' work tears down the very structures of understanding that she equips her imagery with and requires the viewer to move further without being able to lean on those tools.
"All of the images tie together in that they all do have something to do with orienting," she said, "and are generally open to some level of interpretation, but when I put them all together, that function gets obliterated -- not orienting at all, but disorienting and requiring the viewer to put the pieces back together."
Harris' paintings use figurative images that were once the focus of her work, but have melded with the aspects of tarot, Rorschach and cartography that she has folded into the paintings. This has been part of the process for her, one she had to go through without structured guidance but, instead, creative wandering.
"I reached a point in the earlier work, that is much more realism, when I took a step back and made a very conscious choice not to do that," Harris said. "I realized that I was much more interested in this direction that I'm headed now, but I think it took me a number of years and a few bodies of work to make the transition away from that."
"I was trained in a very traditional way and so I had to shake off my training a little bit it order to break up the compositions in the way I've been able to do in this new work. It's a conscious choice, but also when I set out to leave that way of working I did not know where I was going to end up, and in a lot of ways I think that the work that I'm doing right now, the imagery and the iconography is reflecting that whole process for me."
Since the process can be seen in Harris' creative movement forward, the paintings themselves become a map of the process, and the body of work is as much about orientation as the singular images that make it up.
"I don't think I could have jumped from some of those early portraits to this work without several stages in between," said Harris. "It all feels important and every stage has informed the newest work and without each of those different stages, I don't think I would've have had the tools to make this new body of work."
Find Harris online at jenpharris.com.