In the history of American landscape painting, image-making was a tool to contain the unknowable and uncontrollable: the wilderness of a continent not yet wholly colonized. To create the image of the West was in some way to own the West—to tame the plains, the largeness of the world, through the act of picturing, a kind of ocular occupation.
Yet in Jen P. Harris’s Ghost Prairie, the landscape never coheres itself, assembles into a whole, a recognizable shape. It never smoothes itself for the eye into the reassuring flatness of two-dimensional representation. Instead, what we see is the continual refraction of the image, folding and unfolding, kaleidoscopic and dimensionally complex. The installation is a shimmering phantasmagoria, wheeling between the figurative and the abstract, light and dark, organic and geometric form. The prairie, or the memory of the prairie, is rendered in a series of modular cubes, ink paintings mounted on woodblocks, that at times appear to be spilling out their lush contents: soft pieces of pattern and bird wing, the spectral stalks of long-dead plants. The vanished landscape, the interlocking tiles of the phantom plains, is a puzzle with no solution. Ghostly, we cannot take possession of it.
Harris has invoked these ghosts through the most delicate of marks, the light tracings of whispery filaments and leaves limned in transparent glaze. The puzzle is also a palimpsest. We can discern, but just barely, the uncultivated prairie that existed before the farmer’s plow: the sea of tall grass, milkweed and clover. We can glimpse the land before white settlers broke up the thick sod, unwound the river’s curves, drained water from the wetlands, and unearthed the dark soil that would become the most profitable in the country. The installation calls forth the patchy, teeming countryside before it was paved into the familiar gridwork of agriculture, row upon row of chemical-fed crops, unfurling for as far as the eye can see.
The tiles unfold into an expanse of negative space, a wall of blankness that only the imagination can fill. We long to complete the pattern, to find some sequential order in the repetition of form, but the piece will be forever incomplete, eluding our capture. When the modular form is interrupted, opening out onto nothingness, we experience an important dislocation as if time itself were shifting, fracturing, and replaying. The formal composition calls to mind Walter Benjamin’s philosophy of history, in which he claims there exist small pauses or disruptions that hold the potential to blast apart our progressive, linear sense of time. Harris uses the idea of the ghost—a manifestation of loss that haunts the present—as a way of grappling with this unruliness of history, its strange shapes. The ghost in this work appears as a bad form, a type of sick repetition, an allegory of broken time. We come to realize that time—the fourth dimension—does not proceed along a straight line but instead is multiform, always on the verge of turning in on itself, and cannot be neatly platted.
In Ghost Prairie, the eye is pulled to the segment of black tiles along the lower left half of the installation, the line forming an impenetrable shroud that suggests an image that can never fully be known. Amid this darkness is a small eyehole. The eyehole is much like the aperture of a telescope or a 19th century glass lantern slide, offering a window into this spirit world. It is a shape that insinuates a seeing eye, alluding to the existence of an invisible viewer. The eyehole, an artifact of beholding, is the technology by which the natural world is reduced, framed and transformed into a landscape, an organized field of view that is perceived as separate and distinct from the human spectator. But, importantly, our gaze is not unmet. Further along the picture plane is a fragment of a bird’s eye: dark, knowing, uncanny. It is the bird’s eye that seems to haunt the entire work. It is nature looking back at us, the trace of ecological trauma.
We are left with the colors and patterns of a vanished world, a world that will never reveal itself in its entirety—a world that, like memory, will only present itself in fragments, blocks of sensation, fleeting and disconnected. These fragments are not unlike those scraps of tall grass prairie we have remaining, forgotten wilds found in road ditches, railroad right-of-ways and cemeteries, the pockets of land somehow excluded from development. What we have is a wilderness in pieces and yet within these spatial irregularities, the uneven edges of modernity, we might find what Benjamin calls “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past”—the seeds of a different future.
This essay first appeared in the exhibition catalogue for Jen P. Harris: Ghost Prairie (exhibited at CSPS Hall, Cedar Rapids, April-June 2016).
Anya Ventura is a writer based in Iowa City. She is the former arts research writer at MIT's Center for Art, Science & Technology, and her work has appeared in Artforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Temporary Art Review, and the Huffington Post, among other publications.