PRINT November 2002

Bear Necessities

In the dimly received 2002 Whitney Biennial commentators from diverse, even rival camps found one bright spot: RACHEL HARRISON’s slipshod constructions that serve both as sculptures and as supports for found photos and objects. Former editor SAUL ANTON offers his take on the surprise critical accord as well as his thoughts on an art that plays one medium off another.

It’s snotty, I know, but I tend to become that much more interested in an artist if, say, a journalist from one of the glossies turns to me and says: “I don’t get it. I mean, isn’t this just plain ugly?” Of course, you won’t always find the next Matthew Barney this way, but one should never overlook an artist who offends middlebrow cosmopolitan (Cosmopolitan?) taste. In any event, it’s an exchange I recently experienced in front of a sculpture by Rachel Harrison at Art Basel, where she was one of seventeen artists presenting “statement booths.” I’ve been looking at Harrison’s work for quite some time, so I wasn’t entirely surprised by the question, though it did provide a perverse confirmation of my esteem for her art.

To be fair, the journalist was not entirely off base. There was something authentically homely and bizarre in the piece we were looking at, The Honey Collector, 2002. It was an unlikely cross between a supermarket display stand and a mysterious mystic monolith, done in grayish pale purple, on which Harrison had coyly arranged every brand of squeeze-bottle honey bear she could find. On the back of the structure she’d leaned a board on which she’d pinned a flyer announcing RELIABLE CAT-SITTER, complete with tear-off phone-number tabs. It truly is a refractory thing. Sure, there are works of art in the pantheon of the anti-aesthetic that are intentionally far more unpleasant, but this one succeeds with impressive assurance in canceling whatever auratic power it can muster. It does so in two ways: by reminding you that it actually could be a counter at your neighborhood King Kullen—well, one covered in cement—and by insisting that, even if you got the reference to the “low,” commercial nature of the art object, it doesn’t redeem the work or your appreciation of it. “You got it. Goodie for you,” it seems to jeer, somehow unmoved by your brilliance and thoroughly unwilling to affirm any critical value you might lend it for making such an observation possible.

Traffic in the aesthetics of the ugly has a long pedigree. It dates at least to the 1863 Salon des Refusés or Leonardo da Vinci’s caricatures, if not to Longinus’s treatise on the sublime. Nevertheless, like most Conceptual sculpture today The Honey Collector was hardly designed as an affront to Beauty with a capital B. In fact, my guess is that what really bothered said journalist about the piece—a fine example of Harrison’s “what-the-hell-is-that?” sculpture, to quote Bob Nickas’s apt description—was the way the work confounded her attempt to understand it dialectically as a critique of commodity fetishism, as lead, in other words, that could be turned into the gold of critical vanguardism.

The Honey Collector’s refusal operates via a strategy of delay quite literally built in to its two sides. On one side it’s a display stand, on the other, a wall—actually, a fragment of a wall leaning against the countertop structure. Janus-like, these sides designate the aesthetic lodestars of sculpture today: the readymade and the minimal object. If these critical paradigms are seen traditionally as allies in the battle against formalism, Harrison nevertheless envisions them as two aspects of sculpture that are incommensurate if not incompatible: The first type points to its own obvious nature as a sign (for consumerism, commercialism, etc.); the second foregrounds the object’s phenomenological status as a thing prior to any meaning. The result is less a synthesis of opposites than a mutual undermining of each paradigm’s claim to legibility and critical force. In a manner recalling Theodor Adorno’s “dialectics at a standstill,” Harrison doesn’t so much resolve an opposition as reaffirm and, to adopt one of Adorno’s musical metaphors, “play” it.

This is evident in other works. Bustle in Your Hedgerow, 1999, seen at the Whitney Biennial earlier this year, is a five-and-a-half-foot L-shaped object made of wood, Parex, polystyrene, and dark green stucco. It could be taken as an homage to Robert Morris’s primary structures or something by Tony Smith, save for the two tabloid photographs of a bloated Elizabeth Taylor mounted on the back. With this gesture, Harrison undoes the claim of objecthood, stressing that this thick, wall-like thing is not merely a three-dimensional object or support but also, figuratively, a veil that hides as much as it reveals. Its bulk makes it obvious that the veil can never be lifted, yet the reading doesn’t stop there. This same burly solidity is doubled—obliquely and hilariously—by the no-longer-pixieish Liz herself. The result: a structure and an image that refer to each other and their capacity for representation, which, instead of being rejected out of hand, is turned back into the work in a sort of loop. If the piece is reflexive, it is not so in terms of its own materiality but because it is more like a reference machine that circulates meaning through opposing aesthetic poles. The problem, Harrison suggests, is not that sculpture is a nonreferential object but that there’s more reference than we can handle.

This may sound like the formula for an artwork informed by academic debates in the aftermath of ’60s art, and, indeed, Harrison lays claim to Marcel Broodthaers’s mantle, his deliberate use of contradictory statements and his passion for collecting aesthetic models, which she then recycles and dramatizes. Yet, though she fully exploits the dramatic nature of sculpture, she can’t be called an “installation” artist in the way that Broodthaers defines the category. Perhaps this is because Harrison, who is in her midthirties, never attended a graduate program in art and never learned to see installation as a distinct genre, one choice among many in the expanded field; indeed, if anything, she seems to have questioned the form from the very beginning. Her undergraduate thesis show in 1989, an installation set into the window at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts, already sought to examine the relation between the installation form and the power of the image. Harrison herself attributes this concern to the influence of John Baldessari’s work. In the decade since she began exhibiting, mostly in New York at Greene Naftali gallery and increasingly in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere, she has considered installation and its claims to universality, even as it has been generalized into yet another formal language—the preferred form of an ever more spectacularized art no longer possessing the critical edge and sense of inevitability that made it the dominant genre throughout the ’90s.

Paradoxical legacies such as that of installation art are at the heart of Harrison’s practice, but the most important aspect of her work lies less in that now-salonish mode of working than in one that sets her largely outside the post-Minimalist tradition as well as the more academic category of “institutional critique”: her embrace of Pop. Harrison approaches sculpture via the royal road of the image rather than through notions of objecthood and materiality; hence, she rejects any priority of the three-dimensional object over the image, submitting Minimalism to Pop’s—and popular culture’s—all-devouring maw. In the truly funny 2 a.m. 2nd Avenue, 1996, a vaguely cartoonish yellow orb with five photos mounted on it like eyes, four of the images are of Johnny Carson standing with different men. Harrison incorporates photographs and Pop images into nearly every work she makes. The manner in which she does so suggests that her sculptures—or “structures,” if one prefers—are more like picture libraries, hieroglyphic mysteries that must be deciphered even though they tend to frustrate easy reading. In Teaching Bo to Count Backwards, 1996–97, she deploys photographs of Bo and John Derek, with Bo appearing to look down at the cans of olives that Harrison has placed below and to the side of her. A parodic attack on notions of sequence and temporality so dear to Minimal and Conceptual artists, the work seems to suggest that such terms always remain bound to the task of representation and as such can never overcome this burden, an assignment they have often been given. Call it Gnostic or Kabbalistic Pop: a Pop practice that remystifies images which seem self-explanatory and transparent. It reverses the direction of reference in traditional Pop by pointing to something oblique and unexpected in the everyday rather than to the sign-nature of things like Coke bottles or cartoons. In a way, Harrison folds Minimalism’s object back into the image, recognizing the insistent objecthood of the image, its dumb obtuse thereness, as “powerful” as any “specific” object. Isn’t that what the faded glory of Liz is saying here? I’m still here, darling!

Similarly, in No Menus, 1997, Jacob’s Arm, 1997, Picnic, 1998, and the recent Seven of Nine, 2002, which presents a photograph of Marlon Brando’s eye mounted on a seven-foot-tall rust brown thing, Harrison opposes object to photograph in a way that recalls Dan Graham’s use of photography and his particular exploration of circuits of vision, as well as Richard Artschwager’s juxtapositions of material and shape. In these works, Harrison effectively exacerbates the opposition of reference and objecthood, perception and cliché, creating an internal system of equivalence and reference that leaves little room for “subjective” interpretation. No Menus, for instance, a yellow Styrofoam-brick monolith more than six feet tall, resembles an arrival-departure screen in the bizarro world. Instead of showing schedules, as you might expect from a typical information kiosk, the piece offers two photographs of people walking through a train station, apparently coming and going. On the back, Harrison has mounted an image of someone walking past a gated store in an anonymous American town. There is no obvious way to decode the relation between this image and the two others, but you might say the figure looks like someone who has arrived too late or someone who cannot look into the kiosk. One recalls the way Matthew Barney’s images both promise and deny the meaning so many want to discover in his seductively overloaded compositions.

If Harrison eschews the critical legacy of Minimal and Conceptual art, it’s not because she is unaware of their historical importance, but rather because they are dependent on generic forms that today cannot become authentic critical acts in any way. So she dramatizes these critical modes in her works, transforming them into a language of détournement, to borrow Rosalind Krauss’s description of Broodthaers’s strategy vis-à-vis the culture industry’s inevitable appropriation of that which tries to escape its clutches. The installation Perth Amboy, 2001, is a stunning example. A maze constructed of cardboard set in the middle of the gallery, the totality of the work thwarted one’s vision. Yet, as one stepped into the labyrinth, one discovered, tucked in the various corners and miniature culs-de-sac, sculptural tableaux depicting various moments of aesthetic appreciation—a Becky doll (Barbie’s wheelchair-bound friend) looking at a photograph taken on the set of The Mummy Returns, a Chinese scholar studying a hideously faux scholar’s rock, a plaster bust of Marilyn Monroe sitting in a cardboard box, and a can of La Morena salsa sporting a “saucy” Latina on its label who appears to be looking at a reproduction of a painting depicting an art collection, David Teniers’s The Archduke Leopold’s Gallery, 1651. There is also a series of mysterious photographs of a suburban home, the traces of hands pressed against a window evident in some of the photos. The work is based on an incident in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where a reported sighting of the Virgin Mary in the window of a house drew pilgrims for weeks, many of them moved to make physical contact with the window. Perth Amboy clearly plays on the analogy between the desire to see critical apparitions in art and the Catholic pilgrim’s belief in visions of the Virgin, but it tweaks the comparison: Isn’t it our Minimalist and Conceptual critical desire—the wish to discover resistance to capitalism’s power to make anything and everything into a commodity—that we’re being shown here? If that’s the case, Harrison suggests, then such critical rigor is as much an object of faith—Freud would say fantasy—as the Jersey Virgin.

At issue here is the machinery of dialectical negation that transforms one thing into its opposite, a cornerstone of academic art criticism and contemporary cultural theory but also, at least since the ’60s, the culture industry’s hobbyhorse, from the pickup truck morphed into a luxury item (Mercedes SUV) to the $200 ripped jeans to designer cowboy boots. Think how Marc Jacobs’s très cher and très chic trailer-trash designs so easily play the high-low game, turning kitsch “heartland” Americana into glossy spreads. You might suspect that contemporary fashionistas are by default neo-avant-gardistas—or, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, something akin to Delia Brown divas “who read Adorno by the pool.” In other words, anything but critical. Harrison staunchly resists these conversions of base material into symbolic, aesthetic, or critical value by continuously deferring delivery of hermeneutic satisfaction.

In essentially canceling the priority of object to image and adopting the inherently ambiguous mimetic practices of Pop, Harrison is one of the Warhol’s most insightful critics, someone who has grasped the radical legacy of his project. She retains his fascination with the image but jettisons its obvious points of reference, borrowing from Warhol what may be described as his dualism—his early intuition that the poison and the cure are perhaps one and the same. One could say Harrison recognizes in Warhol the collector’s utopian horizon as described by Benjamin: the liberation of the object “from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind.” In this sense, Perth Amboy should be seen as an endgame in the cycle of spectacularization that is native both to Pop and to installation as a form, a necessary return of the repressed sculpture-as-object, now demoted to one among a possibly infinite number of dead metaphors. Analogously, one might say that capitalism’s transformation of everything into commodities eventually undermines the seductive force of the commodity form itself. Harrison pushes Warhol’s famous dictum to its logical conclusion: If everyone is famous for fifteen minutes, then fame doesn’t amount to much. The pop icon, like icons in every other culture, is as much an instrument of forgetting as of memory. The Hollywood pantheon obscures its gods as much as it reveals them. This is one way to read Harrison’s Marilyn in a box hidden in the labyrinth of corrugated cardboard. Her (long) quarter-hour is up, and now she’s just another tchotchke in a box, as mute and indecipherable as a photograph in which we no longer recognize the faces, a thing—or, as Keats once wrote, “a shadow of a magnitude.”

Saul Anton is a frequent contributor to Artforum.


Rachel Harrison, Untitled (detail), 2001, Formica pedestal, polystyrene, cement, Parex, acrylic, and ceramic figurine, 60 x 24 x 24". Photo: Oren Slor.