The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Philip Harris, a British figurative artist who won 1st prize in the National Portrait Gallery’s 1993 BP Portrait Awards with his piece, ‘Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Stream’ (shown below).
In our interview, Harris tells me what it took for him to develop his “discipline of unflinching self-criticism”, what it means to him to be truly authentic as an artist, and what a new piece depicting his current experience of the world might look like.
You write that over time your “personality, philosophy and technique fused into an identifiable style of [your] own.” Does this remain a continually evolving process, and if so, what are the main influences involved in that for you?
Yes, for sure but I think change or progress becomes much less marked over time. Obviously for most of us youth is the time that we explore who we are or want to be and when the greatest gains can be made in developing a skill. However, I would certainly hope that I am still thinking through new ways of being and developing as a person and that the new work will always respond to that whether in subject matter or technique.
I think as I get older though it’s certainly ore evolution than revolution. In terms of the work, I think that if your painting is really attuned to reflecting your personality/philosophy etc. then the way that it changes over time tends to be unconscious. I often say that good artists don’t choose their style, that’s something that just happens to them.
You write that “the discipline of unflinching self-criticism was [your] key tool in editing out anything which was fake, affected or superficial.” What did it take for you to develop that discipline?
I was absolutely obsessed with self improvement. I think looking back that it is interesting that I was able to hold two apparently contradictory beliefs in tandem, namely that firstly, everything I did was utterly useless and so needed to be improved and secondly, there was no reason why I couldn’t be as good as Rembrandt or anyone else ever! My rate of progress was so tangible between say the age of 21 and 26 that it was undeniable and therefore encouraging and a little intoxicating.
One other thing I remember is that I was so obsessed with the ‘honesty’ of the work that I would never tell even the littlest of lies in any circumstance (even out of kindness) because I feared that the dishonesty would seep into my work. I actually do still believe this but I must say I know that it does sound a little extreme.
Relating to the above, what does it mean to you to be authentic as an artist?
I think true authenticity to be honest is probably impossible, I’m not sure anyone would be able to recognize what we produced as art. What I personally mean by authenticity is that I am honest, the work reflects who I genuinely am, not who it would be convenient or financially prudent to be.
One aspect of ‘authenticity’ that I reflect on is that the work tends to represent the deeper more substantive elements of my personality rather than the more social or frivolous. For example, anyone who knows me from my sporting life outside of art will think of me as a lighthearted type who jokes a lot, but humour is pretty absent from my work. I find this interesting but can’t say I have any certainty about it’s meaning. Perhaps just that ‘I want to be taken seriously’ a curse that many artists feel.
Is there an artwork of yours that stands out in this moment as being particularly meaningful to you?
I think Figures at Ebb Tide is a painting that I find meaningful on many levels. It is an almost infinitely complex painting technically with layers of meaning that in my opinion work perfectly together, or at least exactly how I wanted them to. To have so much in a painting and for it still to be easily digestible or comprehensible on an instinctual level is probably my greatest achievement in painting. Part of the theme of that painting is the passage of time and change within that time so it’s particularly meaningful to me because the figure in the foreground is my mother who died fairly recently. It’s a nice reminder that change and renewal is the essence of life.
What piece of art do you wish you could erase from your mind so that you could experience it for the first time again?
Probably ‘Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Stream’ because I have seen it a million times. It would be good to see it without already knowing every mark on it, how it arose and what it led to. It would be interesting to see if my response to it afresh was anything like how I see it after 30 years. I wonder whether how I see it now is a result of how others have responded to it and whether the objectives that I had for the painting were truly met.
If you were to design a new artwork to depict your current experience of the world, what might it include?
Hard to say. For the past few weeks I have been making quick self portraits (1-2 days) which i something I never normally do. Perhaps that’s it though, the whole lockdown experience for many has been a time of private self reflection. Right now I can’t imagine settling down to spend a whole year on a single large painting, I feel like I need a big theme that people should hear/see and currently I feel that there’s no appetite for ‘other peoples big ideas’.
Perhaps that’s just a response to the current uncertainty and shifting of tectonic plates. Interestingly the work that I have been making over the past year has varied hugely between highly political (anti-populist) work, some quite nostalgic pieces and then a couple of completely experimental paintings.