Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Philip Harris, I am a British figurative artist, specialising in Oil on Canvas and Pencil on Paper. I have a highly technical style but my work has a stronger affinity within the European traditions of expressionism rather than the North American traditions of photo realism.
Tell us a little about your background in art and what sparked your relationship with the medium and style you possess.
When I was young, I was the sort of kid that would spend a lot of time on his own, daydreaming, listening to music and if things got really dull, drawing. At 16, as the teachers gathered to enthusiastically chase me out of the school gates, it suddenly became apparent to everyone that I had only one marketable attribute. My father didn’t rate my chances of survival down the local coal mine as high so I was ushered towards the local college to study Art and Design. During the following five years I conspicuously failed to excell or attend regularly but did somehow develop a few embryonic skills which were later to prove useful.
After college, I moved to London to be close to ‘The Art World’, at this stage my work was pretty crude and my style fluctuated wildly between Bacon-esque grotesques, Giaccommetti-ish imitations and dark modernist versions of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. It took about 4 years of extremely intense work for my own style to really emerge.
When I felt that my work had reached a reasonable standard I entered a few competitions and applied to exhibit in gallery spaces. In 1990 I won third prize in the National Portrait Galleries B.P Portrait Award with my ‘Self Portrait ‘and was accepted to hold a solo show in the Tricycle gallery in London. During the next few years I held a number of solo shows and in 1993 won First prize in the B.P Portrait award with my painting ‘Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Stream’. Exhibitions followed at Beaux Arts, London and my work was selected for a major show ‘Painting the Century, 101 portrait masterpieces 1900-2000’.
How has your work changed over the course of your career?
That’s a tough one, I am an intuitive ‘evolver’ rather than an artist who consciously makes leaps of style. I hope that the work has become more nuanced.
What themes do you most pursue?
I am interested in the age old but ever present existential issues. What does it feel like to be alive, how could I feel more fulfilled, how can I connect with the world and what is preventing me from doing that.
My characters are confused, unfulfilled, incomplete, confrontational or afraid. They are as unsettled by their situation as we are. Sometimes the figures are caught in motion between one emotion and another. They often eyeball the viewer, reacting to us, trying to make out how our presence affects them.
The figures are connected to the landscape but unable to wholly integrate into it and sometimes they are actively threatened by it. Their means of relief or redemption is frustratingly inaccessible to them.
The paintings are coaxed into completion over a slow, painful and frustrating process. Each layer of paint alters, refines and clarifies the image until it feels right. I paint by instinct and always trust that above intellect. My intention is to paint emotionally charged paintings, as exposed as teenage love poetry, as uncomfortable, confusing and confrontational as life is.
There seems to be a consistant interest in fire and also the role of the firefighter depicted in many of these images.
Fire is interesting to me because it is normally man-made but once ignited becomes a natural force virtually uncontrollable.
In Firestorm we find a woman surrounded by a violent firestorm, standing upon burning soil. She raises her hand to the viewer, whether as an admission of guilt, in recognition of the viewer or as a plea for help we do not know. She is clearly vulnerable and isolated but whether the soaked clothes are saturated by water or petrol we do not know for sure.
Describe a real-life situation that inspired you.
The idea for ‘Three Identical Hares‘ came observing roadkill on a country lane, heading towards a bleak local beach with a storm gathering overhead.
What were your drawings like as a child?
Small, inhibited and smudgy.
What responses have you had to your work?
Everything from contemptuous dismissal to wild enthusiasm. Whatever the response I think it’s important never to take it too personally.
Some of my favourite quotes from reviews are:
“It is an impressive body of work, standing completely outside the orthodoxies of contemporary art practice…. Philip Harris is an example of an artist whose paintings have emerged from the crowd,, it now looks resilient enough and authoritative enough to survive far away from the mainstream, chilly and rather fascinating.” Charles Suamarez Smith, Modern Painters.
“His attention to detail doesn’t constrain his deeper purpose, which is to locate dreamlike states of being within an ostensibly real world.”William Cook (1991) What’s On.
“Harris’s microscopic technique and obsessive observation seem to take us way beyond the furthest limits of imagination” “The artist throws himself and his dreams into the rubbish beneath our feet, in this extraordinary work of self exposure and undeniable power“. Robin Gibson, “Painting the Century”, NPG.
“Harris has themes, but before that he has vision. It is not so much a way of seeing as feeling. He paints emotions rather than ideas”. John Russell Taylor, Exhibition catalogue.
“Harris is a genuine, unexpected, formidable talent, grounded in the most ardently traditional technique but with something to say which is totally au courant.”
Marina Vaizey (1997) Galleries and Museums
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently planning the work that I will make over the next two – three years.
what are you obsessed with lately?
Slight movements, confusion, failure.
your work is very strong in all respects. Does producing a work drain or rejuvenate you?
Definitely drains me, The work normally begins with a period of easy enthusiasm but this quickly turns into pure obsession. ‘Two Figures at Ebb Tide’
took a full 15 months to paint. I worked on (and thought about) nothing else during this period and took no time off so by the time that the painting was completed I was totally exhausted.
What can you not be without?
The natural world/wildlife, my running shoes and a good range of spices to cook with.