Genus Fusion
The Art of Jan Harrison
Linda Weintraub

Jan Harrison beckons viewers to embark on a voyage. But instead of leaving home to explore exotic sites and sounds, we are guided into equally foreign territory—our innermost selves. We journey downward, circumventing our personalities and our individual life stories, passing our accumulated recollections and our acquired attitudes, crossing beyond spoken and written histories and even beyond human ancestry. Ultimately we disembark in the wondrous galaxy we carry within each gene. Its constellations are measured in units of shudders, murmurs, gasps, and shivers.
On this primal level, we discover our common animal ancestry, a vestigial remnant here awakened and made observable as pastel drawings, porcelain sculptures, and recorded voices. All three media provide compelling evidence of our membership within the animal kingdom. These visual, tactile, and aural expressions are all discovered during the artist’s own inward journey. Through the working process, Harrison probes and ultimately strips away the accreted layers of recorded time. She sheds these confining envelopes, exposing body and psyche to uncompromising nakedness. But once she has arrived at her destination, the material seems to spring into being with the force of an inevitable and authentic stimulus.
This untamed domain is neither malevolent nor benevolent. It is genuinely vital. We become witnesses to the creative and the procreative impulse, a raw and inspiring spectacle.
In an era where food is processed, employment is bureaucratized, entertainment is institutionalized, and education is pre-programmed, we as humans have grown disconnected from our original vitalizing forces. Harrison provides the means for us to reunite with our animal ancestors. Creepers, crawlers, soarers, and swimmers lead us back to the frontier. And we begin anew.
Monsters! Their rude and barbarous forms crawled up columns, crept along balustrades, and hung from the balconies of church architecture. Ancient manuscripts are strewn with their tormenting guises. As evil incarnate, they reminded sinners of the tribulations that awaited them, whether in the eternal afterlife or in the days to come.
Today, monsters populate Hollywood horror films, action comic books, and fantastical literature, animation, and children’s toys. In these ways, monsters have perpetuated their linguistic root across these vast spans of time; “monstrum” not only means a divine omen, it indicates a misfortune of divine proportions. Monsters violate the natural order. They sprout demonic appendages or fuse limbs from incongruous species. These creatures are conjured by the human imagination to stir fear and loathing.
The figures inhabiting Jan Harrison’s work conform to the physical definition of monsters, but, remarkably, they do not seem to generate anguish or grief. Her amphibian/mammal/reptilian/bird convergences are not grotesque; their anatomical distortions are not horrifying; and their unearthly facial demeanors are not repulsive. Their curious impact reflects the artist’s own relationship to her images. She describes them as “a treasure, a deity within me, a divine thing.”
The dark underworld of her imagination is the origin of these crossed-species and merged-biologies. She excavates the arcane kingdom of the human psyche, so long tyrannized by the repressive and oppressive forces of socialization. This psychic zone is located as far from the perceptual faculties of the human organism as from its spiritual affinity to otherworldliness. Furthermore, it exists beyond the reach of personal or behaviorist impulses. Harrison’s journey into deep imagination connects her to the million-year history of the human race. The destination of her travels is the animal soul. Her goal is to recover wisdom that was lost in the rush to civilize, to manufacture, and to manage our world.
In Harrison’s life, this great mythic leap originates in ordinary, domestic animal experiences—a goldfish living in a glass bowl on her kitchen counter, pet cats scurrying through her house, a vacation swim with a dolphin, a trip to the aquarium. Harrison’s experiences are typical. But the ordinariness of her real-life animal contacts yield a startling revelation: if pets and zoos catapult this artist’s consciousness into untamed and untrammeled domains, perhaps the imprint of animal awareness is present in all of us.
Her work actualizes and elaborates this proposition. “Real primitive animals are still within us. Bird-fish, aquatic-mammals are in our bodies and minds. They are not invented. I feel it is my work to bring this out.”
In determined increments, Harrison penetrates the subconscious and summons the amorphous life forms lurking there. They interweave and dissolve in her vision. Harrison’s own likeness serves as a point of departure for this exploration. She initiates each work by creating a conventional portrait in which her body and her humanness appear intact. These borders gradually erode during the prolonged process of working and reworking that ensues. Snake-like, cat-like, fish-like “animoids” emerge. They crawl upon her naked form or perch on her head, wrap themselves across her shoulders or merge their faces into hers. A woman/animal intimacy develops as the work progresses. The work resonates with erotic energies. These erupting figures bite and claw at her until boundaries between flesh, fur, feather, and fin disintegrate. In some works, her body and face appear swollen, red, and misshapen. In others, her skin turns transparent, revealing intricate networks of veins and arteries that travel up her torso and down her arms. This seething capillary activity parallels the psychic pulsations awakened during the art-making process.
Harrison’s images do not illustrate specific myths. They serve no narrative and belong to no predetermined context. Instead, retrieving the pure images of primeval consciousness has allowed her to encounter the origins of awareness which she identifies as the ego, love, fear of death, and the merging of knowledge and innocence. Although each of these perceptions may seem exclusively human, her work attests to the fact that they derive from the ancestors who predate our human relatives—the animals. The animal soul conveys our ingredients of awareness in their elemental form: ego, love, death, and knowledge.
Harrison has noted that egocentricity seems to prevail throughout our culture. Most often, our judgements are based on subjectivity. We value those things that benefit us and provide personal life-enhancement. She then comments: “This narcissism extends beyond an obsession with the self. It also appears as towering urban architecture and disregard for the environment. The ego drives us to aspire to reach the top of a pinnacle. It hinders us as humans. It makes us unable to love.”
In re-imagining and re-animating the animal soul, Harrison accomplishes two ego-defying feats that serve herself and her viewers. First, she envisions animal consciousness in which need does not exceed necessity. Second, she connects to the transpersonal world of myth, demonstrating that restoring our animal soul can only be accomplished if we transcend our human ego.
Harrison does not idealize animals. She states: “Animals are capable of cruelty and tenderness. They display both the vileness and the divine beauty in the universe. They manifest the two sides of love.” How can vileness be conceived of as an aspect of love? She explains: “Animals may be cunning and they may murder, but the aggression they display involves an acceptance of change that is inherent to the life force. There is a form of human aggression which is of a different order. It attempts to suppress the life force. Destructive aggression stems from fear of growth and change. This desire makes us stiff, like cardboard. I want to be soft and round.”
Thus, Harrison suggests, animals do not protest lapses of altruism, the inevitability of suffering, and the inescapable tragedy inherent in the life force. Their engagement in the world is all-inclusive. This life-affirming spirit is the force of love.
As in all-encompassing love, so it is in regard to death that the animal soul is distinguished from human awareness. In fact, the inclinations of today’s populace regarding death hardly justifies the use of the word “awareness.” Most people avoid attending to death. Their last moments are spent in the antiseptic, impersonal environment of a hospital or nursing home. Harrison proposes: “We fear death because we perceive everything related to our personal egos. Even our dying is narcissistic. People have lost their connection to death and the underworld.” Unlike humans, animals are not afflicted with the dread of death. They belong to nature’s cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. In dying, animals return home. They offer solace to humans who resist their status as mortals.
Harrison seeks a synthesis of our dualities. We are part male and part female, human and animal, predator and prey, living and dying, brutal and calm, knowledgeable and innocent. “I feel like someone took a cleaver and separated the two sides. It is because the force of sexuality and the inevitability of death are so feared. Art can reunite us. I am working for my character, working to become whole, an authentic person, not just an artist.”
Besides articulating this theme in her visual work, Harrison has literally enacted the two voices that she discovered in her childhood fantasies when she conjured two fictional playmates. One was dark, powerful, and wild. The other was shy, responsible, and modest. The two struggled to become integrated.
Harrison describes the strange, preverbal language that she utters as an animal tongue, although it does not imitate the sounds made by any known animals. Like her visual art, this language displays evidence of a deep imaginative reality. It extends the maxim ascribed by Carl Jung that the soul is primarily a repository of images. Here the soul is also a repository of languages. In Harrison’s work, both reconnect her with the archaic moorings of our shared precivilized natures.
Harrison’s animal speech consists of two voices. One is dark and all-encompassing. The other is child-like and high pitched. It pleads with the dark power, “Please don’t make me have to die.” This is the cry of innocence confronting knowledge. It epitomizes the search to unify the demands of the soul with the mechanisms of survival.
This dialogue positions the artist within a flow that lies outside of linear thinking and measured time progression. It allows the artist to exist in the manner of an animal. “When I am speaking in animal tongues, I close off a part of my brain. Then I can interact with the part that I find in animals and some human beings. It is more unified.”
Although they are innocent of their roles as teachers, animals show us a way to be released from the weight of the human experience and enjoy an encompassing harmony. This is because they are exempt from the alienating forces of encoded language and externally-imposed patterns of behavior. Harrison seeks this release through her creative process, and she offers it to viewers who experience its outcomes.
L.W. 1998