Sunday, March 25, 2007


CambridgeBuzz welcomes writer Donald Goddard. Donald lives in New York City and is the author of books on Nahum Tschacbasov, fashion photography, sound art, Harry Jackson, American painting, Alan Scarritt, and wildlife conservation.

Rachel Harrison by Donald Goddard

If I Did It
The exhibition’s title, presumably derived from the title of O.J. Simpson’s book about the murder of his wife, evokes the specter of an endlessly conditional, or dubious, material reality. Paradoxically and inevitably, no one’s work is more material than Rachel Harrison’s. The sculptures are alive with the artist’s hands and fingers molding masses of a stucco-like substance, or as forceful compactions of various objects into shapes that become enveloping contexts rather than pedestals. They are suffused with brushed colors in various moods and modes, from dark to delicate to brilliant. And that which they might be pedestals for—cans of Slim·Fast, Arnold Palmer’s Lite Green Tea and Lemonade, or some ingredient for a racing car driver, manikins, a stuffed rooster and hen, a thermometer—are literally material(istic) objects for our consumption. All of this exists as surely and distinctively as do or have the men they represent: Alexander the Great, Amerigo Vespucci, John Locke, Pasquale Paoli, Claude Levi-Strauss, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Fat Domino, Al Gore, Johnny Depp, and Tiger Woods.

Ironically, the men are pedestals and public monuments and are perceived as such; they sustain themselves. There can be no such thing as a woman who has changed or defined history, at least in western civilization, except through association with a man: Mary and Jesus, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, Hillary and Bill. But now these figures belong to Rachel Harrison, and she takes them on inversely to their importance in history. “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.” This passage describes a distraught, disappointed youth, and the figure in Harrison’s sculpture is a youth, but an putatively optimistic one, a naked, smooth-skinned manikin striding forward on a boat like mass painted in bright colors, either embodying the falseness of his hopes in his very being as a manikin, or their genuineness in his newness, hopes that might not even be about conquering. A mask of Abraham Lincoln faces backwards on his head, as though to say that there were indeed new worlds to conquer (incongruously toward the rear), and that they would be sundered and presided over by serious, bearded, older men.

Alexander the Great, 2007. Mixed media, 86” x 45” x 92”.

John Locke, which stands by itself in another room, is much less exuberant, but no less insistent. The simple off-white square column of 18 by 19 inches, about 7 ½ feet tall, has the breathing presence of a person, moving from inside, the contour of a collarbone, breast, or hip emerging in the surface, or are they simply ideas swiveling into place, “Combining several simple ideas into one compound one,” as one possibility from his “Essay on Human Understanding” would have it. It is the piece in which the greatest sense of the interior self, the human body as a single, complex entity, is expressed, and it is a body, vulnerable as much to doubt as to history.

John Locke, 2007. Mixed media, 91” x 19” x 18”.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder is the manikin of a young woman dressed in shorts and T-shirt moving forward ahead of a trail of white plastic foam popcorn on the floor. The popcorn is as a pedestal that has disintegrated, or the packing in the box from which the young woman has escaped. Turning her head, she looks through her eyeglasses with a distraught expression as though she is being or expects to be pursued. On the back of her head, facing forward, is a mask in the likeness of Dick Cheney, who is also wearing glasses, staring relentlessly into the blank space before him, personifying, perhaps, Fassbinder’s reflections on terrorism, which might include his 1979 statement “ . . . that in the last analysis terrorism is an idea generated by capitalism to justify better defense measures to safeguard capitalism.” Both the young woman and Cheney need assistance in seeing, one not knowing the future, the other not caring for the past. As in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, the nymph is being transformed into another being, but she neither knows how or by whom. She can only look back in distress at the destruction in her wake.

Like the ancient Italic-Roman god Janus, two works in the exhibition have faces looking in opposite directions. Janus was the guardian of heaven, who opened and closed the gates to Olympia each day, and protector of the Roman legions. Facing east and west, he encompassed beginnings and endings, past and future, good and evil. Harrison’s art covers a lot of ground.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2006. Mixed media, 66” x 19” x 15”.

There is also a Janus configuration in one of Harrison’s 57 photographs lined up on two of the walls, but she is female, a work of sculpture in what appears to be a medieval church, and she looks inward and outward, into the self and beyond the self. The progression of photos, titled Voyage of the Beagle in reference to Charles Darwin’s journey of exploration that led to his theories of evolution, begins with an ancient menhir in Corsica, a carved upright stone of 3000 B.C. that might commemorate a person or event or represent a deity. What follows is all manner of single figural images—of Gertrude Stein, Marilyn Monroe, a pizza waiter, a polar bear, Lady Bird Johnson, and others—in the form of store window manikins, stuffed animals, sculpture, kitsch statuettes, publicity photos, and other forms of representation. In all of these images there is a sense of sadness, of living entities being trapped within particular forms, a recognition that every act of representation, and/or exaltation, is fraught with ambiguity and mortality, as is the role of the artist herself.

Five stills from Voyage of the Beagle, 2007. 57 archival inkjet prints, 18” x 13” each (framed).

All reproductions courtesy of Greene-Naftali Gallery.

The exhibition runs through Saturday, March 31, 2007 at Greene-Naftali Gallery, 508 West 26th Street, New York, N Y 10001.


Blogger Debra Pearlman said...

Thanks so much for bring more of the art world to our doorstep. We are so lucky to live in an area that is close to three major art centers (NYC, Boston, and Montreal).

I can't wait to see what's happening on the LA scene.

6:05 PM  

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