Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Carla Jay Harris

There is a profound stillness in Carla Jay Harris’ photographs—her framing and shooting style emits a pervasive calm that quiets the anxiety of her subject matter. Harris’ ability to create silence amid moments of emotional upheaval is eerie, tense, and evocative. Two bodies of work portray people and places in the midst of economic and cultural change; Dirt, Dust, Sand, Concrete (2012–2015) shows Smithfield, Virginia, amid a corporate buyout, and Culture of Desperation (2012) portrays a struggling record company during lean times.

Carla Jay Harris. Teresa Cooper 1947, 2012; archival pigment print. 20 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Teresa Cooper 1947, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Carolyn (2012) is part of the Dirt, Dust, Sand, Concrete series that creates a photographic essay of Smithfield, Virginia, and its residents. (The artist was born and raised in Smithfield, and much of her family still lives there.) The town’s only industrial engine, Smithfield Foods, was bought out by a Chinese conglomerate. The subject of Carolyn, a woman well into the later stages of her middle age, presumably named Carolyn, glances sidelong, not into but at the camera, from a slightly elevated position while sitting on her elegant wood-framed and needlework patterned couch. With the smallest hint of a knowing smile, mixed with the benevolent skepticism of an old friend or family member, she rests with neatly cut and straightened hair and her sturdy arms folded.

Carla Jay Harris. Carolyn, 2012; archival pigment print; 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Carolyn, 2012; archival pigment print; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Harris’ composition is neither hopeful nor pessimistic, as her central figure projects an aura of knowing calm and near indifference in a potentially difficult moment; Carolyn is merely just part of the photograph, neither the focal point nor the background. The triangularly formed self-aware quartet of deep, near-red pink fabrics drives the eye around the image away from the figure—from curtain, to Carolyn’s shirt, back up to the reflection of the curtain in an ornate gold mirror and onto a matching gold wall ornament of metal flowers—into what seems an endless series of reflections, refractions that become slightly pink shadows.

 Carla Jay Harris. Momento, 2012; archival pigment print; 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Momento, 2012; archival pigment print; 30 x 40 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Another work in the same series, Momento (2012), treats its subject matter with the same kind of respect and even-handedness that the artist uses to compose the elements in Carolyn. In Momento, though, there is no figure to ground the objects and their context with a personal story. The scene has a depth of character that is conveyed by the way the objects are depicted; it’s a moody close-up of the top third of a television, with two oil-burning lamps flanking a decorative ceramic buck, set against a backdrop of half-closed window blinds and lacy white curtains. Harris extends the frame by cropping the image like a film still, with a continuing narrative just outside the scene that opens a larger idea of space and time. Are these objects from a home or an office? Are the settings and figures in turmoil or just continuing on with life as usual, as part of the contemporary American South, where the past and present seem to mix interchangeably?

Carla Jay Harris. Adam Cooper 1796, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Adam Cooper 1796, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In the Culture of Desperation series, Harris depicts with an intimate yet distanced lens a record company (where she used to work) during a confounding cycle of ups and downs. The artist notes: “I was repeatedly struck by how product, promoter, and creator were uniquely intertwined—as were their fates. In order to support the ever-increasing demands of an ever-changing market, artists were pushed, overextended, burned out, turned down, and quickly replaced. Similarly, behind the scenes, full corporate commitment was mandated, layoffs were frequent, and the older and more experienced waited with trepidation to be replaced…” Harris’ words capture the tensions that are often hidden in many of her works. There is always a story behind the objects and figures in her compositions, but Harris has a unique ability to communicate situations while avoiding fetishizing her subjects and their settings—one doesn’t need to know the story, just that there is one. The office space in Adam Cooper 1796 (2012), or what is left of it—a tangle of chords, discarded CDs, and a bare window—could be the beginning or the end of a chapter at an office, a chapter that holds both hope and despair.

Carla Jay Harris. Samantha Gable 0715, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Samantha Gable 0715, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

By naming each work in this series after a person, Harris grounds each in an enigmatic aura. What can we glean about the people represented by Samantha Gable 0715 (2012) and Adam Cooper 1796? Who were they, and does it matter? What was and is this office that shows the remnants of a corporate culture amid a constant cycle of hirings and firings? What are the myriad stories of each corporate office cubicle, filing room, and workspace—what dreams, aspirations, goals, and ideas were imagined, realized, and left unfulfilled in each, and where do they echo now?

Carla Jay Harris. Kristen Song 1212, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Carla Jay Harris. Kristen Song 1212, 2012; archival pigment print; 20 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Where Adam Cooper 1796 conveys an abandoned space, Samantha Gable 0715 depicts a fully used office, a warm, insulated atmosphere punctuated by a hopeful sliver of light. This variability and balance between hopefulness and emptiness is where Harris’ work is strongest. By treating people, settings, and objects as equally important, through a deft handling of the interplay of light, color, shape, and space, Harris sidesteps a specific portrayal. Instead of directing meaning, the artist drops hints and poses questions as she looks to the larger complexities in the composition of a situation, a person, an industry, an object, or a city.

Carla Jay Harris is an artist living and working in Los Angeles. She earned her MFA in Fine Art from UCLA and her BS in Media Studies from the University of Virginia. She has studied at the Parsons School of Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Her work has been included in solo and group exhibitions in Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Long Beach, Washington, DC; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Newark, New Jersey. Her work has been collected by the Johns Hopkins University, the Avon Foundation, and the Embassy of Trinidad and Tobago in Washington, DC.

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