Rachel Harrison Life Hack
On ViewWhitney Museum of American Art
October 25 – January 12, 2019
Imagine, if you will, an alternate universe in which the uncanny bricoleur sensibilities of Jessica Stockholder, Franz West, Cady Noland, Martin Kippenberger, Isa Genzken, and Mike Kelley are melded into one super/sub consciousness of sculptural caprice named Rachel Harrison. The artist known as Rachel Harrison isn’t so much an identity as an animating spirit, all at once and in every instant vicariously inhabiting otherwise inanimate (pre-zombie banal) materials such as plywood faux wood paneling, plaster, Styrofoam, cement, chicken wire, tacky wigs, Halloween masks, store mannequins, fake fleece, plastic fruit, and photographs, both of stars and nobodies, all deployed as abject signifiers in ecstatic concert. Despite the fragmentary, kaleidoscopic effect of Harrison’s assemblies one is weirdly taken by just how scrutable her constructs are: we easily apprehend her ability to make coherent the shattered and schizophrenic popular culture of her post-war American youth. Harrison reverse-engineers that particular culture’s veneer of socially-imposed bonhomie—of “get happy”—to assemble, Frankenstein-like, a horribly stitched together embodiment and negative mirror of that positive gestalt. Appropriately, the title of Harrison’s current show at the Whitney, “Life Hack”, cleverly alludes to a popular idiom for fixing or usefully altering something that isn’t necessarily known to be broken.
The exhibition opens with an ersatz merzbau of sorts (Kurt Schwitters would have approved): a reconstruction of Harrison’s first one-person show in New York, held at Renée Riccardo’s Arena gallery in 1996. It’s idiosyncratically titled Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere? The title was taken from a New York Times article on weatherproofing for hurricanes, but when filtered through the artist’s cross-wired wit, it might be translated as indicating the abstract existential threat that neurotically looms beneath the serene surfaces of suburban domesticity. Fake wood paneling, that omnipresent cladding of low-rent offices and split-level rec-rooms alike, encloses the space of the installation, provisionally clamped together like the knock-down flats of commercial film sets or trade show facades. Pedestrian photos of mounds of garbage bags are alternately stuck directly on these shingled panels or mounted in salon style hangings. Expanded “clouds” in a range of colors including rancid green, pink, and blue foam support differing grades of canned peas. The “clouds” cheaply reference the cumulus supports of Baroque saints and putti, while the cans of peas allude phonetically to canapés, the insubstantial sustenance of party finger food—like the kind served at art openings. This interplay of art-historical reference and connotative word play is essential to Harrison’s aesthetics, and in the gap between them lies the key to her politics. Like Mike Kelley and Martin Kippenberger, she loves “taking the piss” out of both arty proprieties and social pretensions. And like them she relies heavily on her own quirky subjectivity to guide her intuitions. She could accurately be considered a feminist sculptor (undermining the universalist phallic monument, etc.) since her everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to materiality evinces a more intimate and locatable mélange of presence—what feminist theorist Donna Haraway has termed a “situated knowledge.” Harrison’s politics are therefore inseparable from her aesthetics: universalizing pop cultural (and pop-repressive) clichés of gender identity are exploded in a gambit that corresponds with the exploded and reassembled form of her sculptures.
An excellent example of this tendency can be seen in her performance as sculptor. In 1:1 (Wonton: John) (1996) Harrison developed a daily practice of sculpting clay and polymer wontons that are correlated with photo appropriations of all sorts of men named “John.” These include vintage images of John Travolta, a reproduction of Alice Neel’s nude portrait of the artist and critic John Perreault, a head shot of the director John Waters, and lesser known pop luminaries. The images are assembled in a motley collection hung (again) salon style above the pathetically molded and poly-chromed “wontons,” which recall Hannah Wilke’s fabrication of bubble gum envelopes that serve as playful symbols of malleable labia. “John,” of course, is the colloquial term for a the client of a prostitute (a “wanton” woman—more connotative word play). By sending up these societal stereotypes in an equal ratio, the artist equitably muddies the binary truisms associated with both. And her playfully abject processing of such cultural clichés tends to ground these socializing fallacies in an ironically clarifying bad taste. These examples of Harrison’s work from the 1990’s offer a significant key to the aesthetic/political nexus that underscores the entirety of her subsequent career. Once one is initiated into her playful (yet deadly serious) idiomatic logic, the later works in this career survey offer themselves more freely and openly. This is largely due to the fact that, in her later sculptures, Harrison more generously deploys the massed materiality of her installations so as to obfuscate any literal, denotative reading of the work. And yet it would all fall apart—nothing more than a bunch of stuff thrown together—if it weren’t for the artist’s ability to empower the material world with her own quirky yet insistent system of meaning.
The largest chamber of the exhibition contains a survey of sculptures and photographic works created between the late 1990s and 2012. These are arranged on a plywood floor painted black and cursorily mapped by white street lines, like a suburban subdivision, painted by a scene design painter. The stage-like setting is a risky, almost universalizing, histrionic move for an artist whose dramas typically unfold as more self-contained soliloquies. The cacophony of this crowded field threatens to overwhelm one’s intimate encounter with the individual sculptures, which are themselves crowded with competing gestures. Upon entering the large room one is confronted by Sphinx (2002), a construction of wood, polystyrene, cement, and sheetrock on wheels that resembles a model of a medieval siege tower. In place of a battering ram, we see a framed screen-grab of the television art commentator and nun Sister Wendy in close up, seeming to almost kiss an ancient sculptural head. Behind this façade, a pink polystyrene “rock” is perched on a wheeled tower. It’s a witty set-up of the sentimentality of popular art appreciation and the pseudo-weight (the polyurethane foam rock is virtually weightless) it’s given as a cultural activity. Here the artist begins to calibrate more closely the ratio in which she combines social commentary, art historical reference, and the literal and figurative weight of the world. Is Sister Wendy making culture more accessible to the masses, or diluting it with her own blind passion for art in general? The same question might be put to Harrison with respect to her own insistent leveling of artistic hierarchies of taste. Certainly the provisional way in which her works are assembled implies that such social constructs could be easily taken apart at any time.
The assemblage Alexander the Great (2007) was included in Harrison’s career-consolidating show at Green Naftali in February and March of that same year. With this exhibition, the artist expanded her thematic range, and the ensemble of sculptures were appropriately infused with a certain grandeur. With Alexander, one encounters a child-sized store mannequin whose head is strapped, Janus-like, to a rubber Halloween mask of Abraham Lincoln (recalling, perhaps Mike Kelley’s dubious memorializations of that revered American icon). This figure is posed astride a plaster and chicken-wire “cloud” that has been poly-chromed in a primary color camouflage that betrays the influence of the Austrian artist Franz West. Clothed in a Sari-like cape and holding a Nascar-branded wastebasket in which two “unidentified items” are placed, the mannequin resembles a boy’s fantasy of a conquering hero. Harrison develops her familiar combination of art historical tropes and registers of socially conditioned personhood in order to lead her audience into a roiling stream of consciousness, articulated in material form. Another sculpture on view, Warren Beatty (2007), dates from the same year and is part of the same body of work. The eponymous actor was known as an infamous Hollywood womanizer, but the artist is referring here to the Warren Beatty type, using the actor as a generic signifier for sexual promiscuity and class mobility. A wood, chicken wire, and polystyrene armature wrapped tightly in felt moving blankets, the piece pays oblique homage to Rodin’s monument to Balzac (via Joseph Beuys, perhaps), but offsets Rodin’s myth-making sculptural rhetoric with the suffocating aspect of the tightly pressed moving blankets. “U-Haul your ass outta here” the artist seems to casually enjoin the randy philanderer, and in doing so, she demonstrates that the revolutionary power of women’s laughter will not be so easily dismissed.
In addition to the various sculptures in the show, Harrison exhibits a corollary body of work in colored and collaged drawings. Like her three dimensional interventions her graphic output often combines pop cultural and art historical icons. One memorable series pairs gestural renditions of the star-crossed singer Amy Winehouse with versions of De Kooning’s “Women” drawings of the 1950’s, while another, entitled The Classics, delves into the diverse art historical references that turn up in Harrison’s sculptures, such as the recurrent figure of the Greek kouros.
The grand finale of the exhibition corrals 15 large and medium-sized sculptures, all executed between 2002 and 2018, in a circular cordon of outward-facing folding chairs. These so-circumscribed works are arranged on white pedestals of varying heights and dimensions. Conspicuous among these is Al Gore (2007), a polystyrene and cement monolith in mottled green, pink and orange acrylic paint. This uncharacteristically minimal piece (for Harrison) has affixed to it only a household thermostat: a blunt metaphor for a failed political attempt to regulate global warming. It’s a typically funny, and yet, not-so-funny social comment, made very real, clear, and present by the artist’s highly attuned sense of materiality. Harrison’s amalgamated gestalts of our collective social life coalesce the fragmentary real: a sculptural vision clarified by her uncannily situated knowledge.