The Ouroboros, the ancient Gnostic and alchemical symbol of the serpent eating its own tail, is one of the many motifs in Jen Harris’s recent series of paintings. It is also a visual synecdoche for the ever-expanding enigma that this series is. Is the Ouroboros an image of death or rebirth? Is the snake devouring itself, or is it, as Borges points out in The Book of Imaginary Beings, a being that “begins at the tip of its tail”?
It is, essentially, both. The Ouroboros represents the ongoing cycle of destruction and re-creation. But infinity symbols are difficult for the Western mind to grasp, in part because of the linear way we define time. When presented with a symbol like this one, we often see it not as allegory, but as an allegorical puzzle—one we yearn to understand on our own terms, and thereby, solve.
Harris, sensitive to the workings of the human psyche, employs a quantity of these ancient, often mystical symbols in the construction of her beguiling and visually rich compositions. (There is another secret language being employed here, that of color.) In vivid ink, gouache, acrylic, the iconography of the riddle appears—Gordian knots, Tarot card figures, utopian architectural ideas, loops and circles. The intricate, fluid imagery is overlaid with or sometimes encased in rigid geometric forms, such as in A Tale for the End of a Millennium (2014), where a partially occluded scene of primordial bloom and decay unfolds within a trio of neat blue blocks. Sections of the blocks are peeled away, allowing us a glimpse inside. The title is also suggestive, multivalent. “A” millennium—meaning the one we recently left, or the one spreading out before us? And what do we make of this “Untitled” series, a palimpsest of serpent, branch, and knotted rope: barracuda, soaring dragon, X45C (2014). These “untitled” titles are the names of drones. The Diamond paintings, in their forward-slanting, tessellated shapes, and multiple vantage points, tease us with the idea that if properly assembled, like mosaics in a wall, the full narrative will appear.
Throughout her career, Harris has gravitated to the essential mysteries. In American Kiss (2011), it was the nature of love, challenging the ways sexual and emotional desire is sanctioned, expected, replicated in the popular imagination. Split (2012), a series of poured ink paintings with ghostly Tarot figures drawn into their Rorschach-blot shapes, explores the means by which we attempt to understand our own behavior and motivations, and from those approximations, assess the real mental prize—our futures.
Presented with the mortality puzzles in Contrapuntal Hitch, we come up against our desire for a definitive answer to the most elusive of questions. We expect information to lead to understanding. But in the current technological age the proliferation of information, and the way it rapidly mixes with opinions, half-truths, and lies, also breeds confusion and fear. I am most drawn to Jen Harris’s work because I understand it to be elucidating this modern-day conundrum. It reminds me of what Chekov said to be the task of the artist, not to solve anything, but to offer “a correct presentation of the problem.” It is only through the most honest articulation of existence that the greater mystery has its own chance of being revealed.
This essay first appeared in the exhibition catalogue for Jen P. Harris: Contrapuntal Hitch (published by Times Club Editions, Iowa City, January 2015).
Jessica Lott is the author of the novel The Rest of Us (Simon & Schuster, 2013), winner of the New England Book Festival Award for Fiction; and the novella Osin, winner of the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. Her essays and art writing have appeared in The New York Times, PBS: Art21, frieze, Modern Spectator, and Errata (Bogotá), among other places. She received the Art Writer’s Prize from the Frieze Foundation, London, in 2009.