Jen P. Harris’s ‘Ghost Prairie’ summons lost landscapes

Visual artist Jen P. Harris’s latest exhibition, Ghost Prairie brings a lost Iowa landscape back to Cedar Rapids. The show at CSPS Hall will be up until Sunday July 3.

Harris recently moved to Iowa City after ten years in New York, and the exhibit, composed of new works from the last six months, is conceived in response to the Iowa landscape, one of the most radically altered places in North America.

Jen P. Harris
Jen P. Harris’ is “Untitled (Navigation)” — image courtesy of CSPS Hall

The installation is composed of ink paintings on both wood and paper mounted on walls around the room at CSPS. While the effect is encompassing, the room also feels strangely sparse. Harris seems to ask her audience to consider not only her art but the emptiness and stillness it sits in.

The largest part of the exhibit, spanning the 35-foot wall, contains ink paintings mounted on diamond-shaped wood blocks. Some are painted with leaves, stalks, and flowers in pastels colors, recalling a pastoral scene. Elsewhere, brazen orange and yellow might declare a golden sunset.

But everywhere the blocks are broken apart and disjointed. Some might form a hexagon or other geometric shape, while others jut away into the empty wall.

In her description of the installation Harris writes, “I was thinking about ghosts and about how a ghost is a presence that reveals something about our minds and our relationship to history.”

Indeed, the separation of the blocks seems to represent a ghost presence itself, seeping between recognizable forms. On black and white blocks, a bird is spread across the wall, with a large watching eye on one end, a wing and neck else, tail feathers separate still.

Other blocks in the installment are simply black, or painted in more abstract patterns. All are affected by the space surrounding and interspersing what is familiar, turning it alien and strange. The disjointed quality of the installation emphasizes a landscape that is both here and not here, while the spaces evoke questions of change—what is missing? What is lost? How does the present landscape fit with what once was?

“I originally conceived of the project as a single monolithic wall installation filling the 35-foot wall at CSPS,” Harris’ says. “Over the course of many months of developing imagery, I realized the installation needed more empty space devoid of images to evoke an experience of the simultaneous presence and absence of an entire dimension of the landscape. This is what I was interested in evoking. ”

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