Art so good it makes your eyes water

"Tenacity", Action Analysis Series (2017), by Judith Harvey, AKA JAH..Image: Judith Harvey/supplied.

Sydney artist and author Guy James Whitworth introduces us to the Sydney art scene’s next big star – but is left with a nasty taste in his mouth.

The afternoon I interview Judith Harvey, I’m ashamed to say I coerced her into meeting me in a Vietnamese café that wasn’t really convenient for her at all. However, this particular café does a really delicious banh mi (brimming with pickled carrots and oodles of yummy mushrooms) and I’d been craving one for weeks. 

The person behind the counter asked if I wanted chilli and I replied, yes please, but just a little. (Please, dear reader, take note of this event as it is crucial to future plot twists.) 

I have met Judith a few times before and she sat for me once for a portrait – but that’s another tale for another time. Every time I’ve met her, I’ve been struck by her lack of understanding of how utterly awesome she is. It’s endearing and very rare in the world of up-and-coming artists, where brag and ego rule supreme.  

At 24 she is funny, smart, brimming with talent and adorably shy. It turns out I am the very first person to ever interview Judith face to face, which becomes obvious as she answers many of my questions with a one word answer then giggles nervously and sips her drink. Even this is endearing, although hardly helps with my task at hand of writing this piece. 

Bashfulness aside, Judith is an accomplished artist and print maker, and – you heard it here first, folks – looks like becoming a new major name in the Sydney art scene. I think cleverly constructed art, like hers, can change the world – and if that’s true, artists like Judith are extremely powerful and have no reason to be shy. 

Her art practice is ridiculously mature and developed (at 24 I had zero idea what I wanted to do or say as an artist) and she has written an explanation of her art practice on her website in the form of a manifesto (again, at the same age, I could barely tell you the meaning of the word ‘manifesto’) entitled ‘Visual Transportation’. During the explanation of this, Judith’s shyness fades away and is replaced with both eagerness and confidence.  

We chat about why she sometimes hides behind the genderless name ‘Jah Creations’ (JAH being her initials). She states, with a sigh, it is mostly because of sexism she has witnessed within the printing scene, where male artists routinely gain entry to the higher reaches of the profession and often win more awards. 

Judith Harvey. Photo: supplied.

My sandwich arrives, but I don’t want to appear rude, so I politely wait for a gap in the conversation before I greedily gobble it down. I am aware, though, that I keep glancing (probably slightly manically) at it. 

The title of Judith’s upcoming debut exhibition at the M2 Gallery is somewhat literal Music Meets Screen Print – the title summarises the work in a nutshell.

It is a universally shared experience that listening to music can leave us all a little bit more aware of our own emotions or even change the course of a particular mood, but for many of us that’s where the experience ends. However, Judith progresses that experience into a process of breaking those emotions down into colour, form and texture to construct a visual landscape of the emotions music can evoke.  

Music that inspires Judith can be anything from standard pop chart flotsam to the huge epic classical scores underlying battle scenes from cinematic blockbusters. Her work is spectacular, and even as an experienced artist with their own practice, it still fills me with marvel that something so very complex, beautiful and otherworldly is given form from such everyday elements as background music. 

The wonder of Judith’s work is all achieved through the medium of screen printing, which – for those who don’t know – is a very technical and laborious task, made up of creating stencils and building up layer after layer of pigmented ink to create form and depth. Add into this complex process authentically depicting emotional reactions to music and you can begin to appreciate the mastery involved in her art. 

In Judith’s own words, “For example, stencils are printed as ‘Bar Studies’ mimicking the structure of music notation whilst instruments share semiotic representation with shapes.”

We Will Rock You – News of the World by Judith Harvey. Image: supplied.

Slyly, under the distraction of Judith’s enthusiastic chatter about her work, I greedily take a large bite of my delicious banh mi only to inelegantly spit it straight out again and rather hysterically reach for my water bottle. The aforementioned delicious Vietnamese snack is virtually packed solid with chopped red chillies. 

Bugger, I’d been really looking forward to that. 

It strikes me, as I fan my tongue with a napkin and Judith politely stifles her giggles, that the experience is metaphorical. Both Judith and the person who made my sandwich are unburdened by the potency of what they are creating. In Judith’s case, this is a wonderful thing – in the sandwich maker’s, not so much.

The power of cleverly constructed art certainly has the ability to change the world, or at least how we see it (or hear it). Specifically, Judith’s art has the ability to make us experience everyday interactions and occurrences anew, and make us appreciate the world with refreshing wonder. 

And, should Judith ever develop into the boastful type, she can truthfully claim that her first ever interviewer was left in tears.  

Judith Havey’s exhibition Music Meets Screen Print runs at the M2 Gallery, Shop 4, 450 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills from 17 – 23 February. Open daily from 12pm –6pm. For more information on the exhibition, visit m2gallery.com.au/Exhibitions/tabid/87/listid/257/Default.aspx. Judith Harvey’s website is located at www.jahcreations.art.

Guy James Whitworth is a Sydney-based artist and author. His book, Signs of a Struggle – is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst and good bookshops everywhere. He can be followed on Instagram and Twitter. 

Click here to tell NSW political leaders to affirm trans and gender diverse kids, and reject the 'Trans Erasure Bill'.