SAUGERTIES, New York — Since the early 1980s, Jan Harrison has depicted figures in her art — some human, most animal. In Animula — Big Little Soul, an exhibition of new work on view at the 11 Jane St. Art Center, she presents sculptures made of white porcelain and works on paper employing pastel, ink, and charcoal, with the occasional addition of oil stick.
The paintings are typically two by two-and-a-half feet in size: large enough to include up to six animals and small enough to feel intimate. The sculptures, collectively entitled Tiny Porcelain Sea Creatures and Other Creatures (2019-20), range from three to five inches in length. Suspended from filaments in the back room of the gallery, they hover around the viewer like sparrows or oversized moths, though some represent larger animals — pangolins, wolves, giant squids. Glinting off the smooth surfaces of these objects, the galley lighting intensifies their already vivid presences. The light in Harrison’s works on paper is, of course, imaginary. Figures delineated in incandescent colors emerge from equally bright backgrounds or from a tendril-filled darkness that feels less nocturnal than dreamlike.
When humans appear in Harrison’s earlier works, they are usually female and nude, and they resemble the artist. She calls several of these images self-portraits, yet they are not likenesses — or, rather, not likenesses of her as the social being she is in her daily life. They return our gazes with a wary intensity untouched by the decorum we usually bring to interactions with one another. These self-portraits show Harrison not as a member of society but as an indigenous inhabitant of a place beyond the boundaries of life as we routinely live it. This place is her imagination, the world where her art originates.
There are no human faces in the Animula exhibition, though human hands reach in from the edges of several works on paper. Three fingers in “Foundling” (2015) touch three hooves of what looks like a hyena that is roughly the same size as the hand, however “touch” is not quite the right word. Perhaps Harrison is showing us how little the logic of ordinary space constrains her subjects. Animals that appear to us upside down may, as far as they are concerned, be standing right side up in Harrison’s world, a place where gravity has little of its usual force. For she does not portray flesh-and-blood animals; she conveys, instead, intangibles: the personalities, the spirits, of her strange but somehow familiar subjects.
Many of the animals in the works on paper are feline, though it is impossible to identify a particular species. No doubt these big cats are cousins to the leopards and tigers in zoos, yet Harrison has reimagined them so thoroughly that they look like fresh discoveries. Each one appears to have taken a unique evolutionary path to its place in her art — some of her felines are a touch canine, while the mandrill-like animal in “We Were Lost” (2018) has a family resemblance, however faint, to the imposingly bovine personage who stares out at us from the foreground of “Hooved Dream” (2020). There are birds in this population, some brightly plumaged and others adapted to the shadows, as well as aquatic creatures that swim away from any taxonomic determination we might want to make.
For all their lithe clarity, Harrison’s animals have an air of the provisional — all is in flux, nothing is settled. Hence the glowing textures of her pastels make for ambiguous outlines; some animals seem to blend with the depths from which they emerge and even with one another. At first glance, “Ark Angels” (2020) is a tangle of creatures. With further looking, several of its animals — all cat-like except for one who is more like a luminously hairy primate — seem to be morphing into one another.
Whether the porcelain body of a sculpture is smooth or feathered or scaly, like the pangolin’s, the delicacy and precision of Harrison’s facture is visible in the surface of each of these pieces. No one would mistake a four-legged wolf for a bird with wings folded; nonetheless, the three-dimensional forms all have a fluidity of limb and wing, of tail and fin, that makes it easy to imagine them sharing their forms, especially in the fictive ocean where even wolves and lions live. Because it is shared throughout the artist’s oeuvre, this fluidity connects her distinctive beings to one another and all other creatures, including ourselves. Their boundaries are permeable, and that permeability invites us to identify with them — to feel their vividness, their immediacy, as a kind of kinship.
Harrison’s three-dimensional animals float in imperturbable repose and those in her paintings mostly regard us with utter calm. A few, with teeth bared, may well be poised for ferocious leaps. Still, her world is not an arena of Darwinian conflict. It is an ecosystem of intuitable meanings, of empathies intertwined. The paintings belong to a series the artist launched in 1993, which she calls Animals in the Anthropocene — animals in the time of human dominion, a title that could be understood as an indictment, given all that the human race has done to harm animals through environmental and other kinds of disruption.
However, the mood of Harrison’s art is not prosecutorial. Rather than send us messages about the damage we have inflicted on our world and its inhabitants, including ourselves, she confronts us with images and effigies of creatures whose beings are as complex as our own, and thus as valuable. She does this in the faith that, in coming alive to all that is vital in these figures, we will realize that the vitality of an individual creature is not enclosed within itself.
An empathetic connection to a single being withers unless we weave it into a network of further connections with myriad beings. To respond to an animal in Harrison’s imagined world is to grasp how closely its existence is linked with that of all the others. Thus, she refreshes our insight into the interdependence of living things — and our understanding of life’s dependence on the real world, which, in the Anthropocene period, needs every insightful action we can take.
Jan Harrison: Animula — Big Little Soul continues at 11 Jane St. Art Center (11 Jane Street, Saugerties, New York) through October 4.