PRINT November 2002

Blind Alleys

In Rachel Harrison’s Untitled, 1991, a rank bear fur hangs from nails driven into the wall. Thin, braided plaits of fake human hair (extensions snatched from a roommate) similar in shade to the dark brown fur complicate the nasty thing, whatever it is. On the hirsute surface dangle, rather precariously (making a kind of truncated constellation, ursa minor as it were), four tattered photos; Harrison found them abandoned on the street. The hue and hairdos date the snapshots from the late ’60s or early ’70s. One is of a family—four children, a father kneeling, someone standing, an accordion stretched across hips, the face and shoulder eviscerated. Another picture shows a little girl with a photo album splayed across her lap; she appears to suffer from Down’s syndrome. Is our understanding of these forlorn pix and the skin they hang on any more profound than the girl’s take on the photo album in her lap? Does she think the album, with its heavy black pages, might make music like the accordion with its black folds? What questions would she want to ask about art? Are they the questions anyone should ask? Another pic shows a wall with a road sign: CAUTION. Take it as a directive on how to proceed, on too hastily deciding what this untitled bear rug with photos is—sculpture? photo?—much less what it means. The bear rug doesn’t really frame the photos, despite surrounding them, and while the fur suggests drooping connection to Robert Morris felt pieces and the protruding braids to Eva Hesse or David Hammons, I keep thinking it’s like a strange coat of arms. The motto would read: How much meaning can you bear?

Harrison’s work is positioned as dealing in the connections and disconnections between (I) the flat, illusionistic space of photography and the volumetric, actual space of sculpture; (2) the readymade and the hand- and/or homemade (cans of peas, found materials, Marilyn Monroe; variegated, at times even glittering, blobby forms and DIY carpentry); (3) ’60s formal/poetic Minimal and post-Minimal devices and ’80s appropriationist and commodity-critique strategies; (4) artist, viewer, and object viewed, which Harrison often literalizes—diagrams—in her pieces with photographic or sculptural stand-ins for people looking. In Untitled, 2001, for example, a Becky doll (advertised as Barbie’s “wheelchair friend” and the “school photographer” [!] on the Mattel box) stares at a photograph of a green-screen soundstage, taken on the set of The Mummy Returns, the green screen itself, like photography, able to depict or project anything and everything . Or in a framed photograph in Sphinx, 2002, art critic/saint Sister Wendy gazes, happily full of grace, at an ancient statuary head. In terms of Harrison’s use of such particular surrogates, it is not simply the viewer who’s figured (empowered?) as different, disabled, or “challenged”; the artist is implied as well, meaning that you can probably smell the stinky, suppurating wound of Philoctetes (cf. Edmund Wilson’s The Wound and the Bow, which figures the ostracized but unsurpassable Greek marksman as artist, whom society shuns or ignores because of his or her difference, even repugnance, until a crisis—when what the artist provides is the only thing that will save society). To put it another way: The stand-in “other” has become anyone who bothers to try to look and to consider looking. (Since they are inanimate objects, Harrison’s various representations of lookers cannot, of course, actually see; in this sense, a kind of looking-but-not-seeing, a blind gaze, is depicted.) Given a media-driven, image-obsessed culture that nonetheless devalues when not preventing a sustained education about how art and the visual operate—and how this might be pertinent to a more informed negotiation of life in such a culture—one can understand that, with little of Wilson’s romanticism, the artist and the looker might be figured as crippled.

Still, Harrison is no queen of the between. Her work doesn’t operate by opposition. In its literalization of what cannot be seen (blind spots), in its being held together by, paradoxically, gaps and holes (especially between different kinds and forms of culture), Harrison’s photography and sculpture bear an analogical, even allegorical relation to the cultural/artistic condition in which opposition has ceased to exist. Most of her sculptural work defies structuring principles of front and back: Representations of either are only apparent, as in Sphinx, where the drywall that displays the Sister Wendy photo seems to situate a front or outside (gallery wall) and the rosy blob on its kooky diagrammatic base a back or inside (storage area). Such strict oppositional spatiality is stymied, confused, by attention to how the “base” that supports the pink form resembles other Harrison sculptures (such as Studio 54, 1996) while the rosy “sculpture” itself mimics “bases” in other works by Harrison—e.g., the mountainous jade form of Wardrobe, 2002. Similarly, the unfinished wood of Sphinx recalls the artist’s early installations, like her 1996 debut solo show in New York, at Arena, where various panelings and faux-brick coverings, in addition to little papier-mâché blob shelves holding cans of peas and framed street photographs—some with piles of green garbage bags dreamily skewing the scale of the piles of green peas on the labels of the cans—abstracted the real and realized abstraction by folding the space of domestic, sculptural, architectural, and photographic representation. Sphinx is made up of the presentation of a photograph and the presentation of a sculpture; it isn’t “about” the display or framing of either. One of the questions it would seem to ask is, What kind of difference does surface qua surface make when one looks—at a photograph and at a sculpture, when represented surface and actual surface meet? All of which makes it not only difficult to answer the riddle of where Sphinx is (front/back, inside/outside) but what and when it is (is it simply present, or does it re-present aspects of sculptural history as well as of the artist’s own earlier work?). The viewer must continue to circumambulate Sphinx—circulation and stasis situating one of the basic differences in looking at sculpture and photography (we don’t usually walk around photographs)—and its riddle never settles.

I didn’t think I’d begin my attempt to write about Harrison’s work in such a dutiful way (mention an early “key” piece to lens things through, detail the various constitutive aspects of the work). I was going to start by mentioning my forthcoming book (finally!) of interviews with Helen Keller on aesthetics, conducted in 1968, just a few months prior to the grand dame of audio-visual deprivation’s demise. Bringing Helen into this would thematize seeing and the unseeable, methods of reception (Anne Sullivan; braille), effects of mediation (The Miracle Worker) and belief. Not impertinent matters.

Why would I do that? I want to throw some rays of reflexivity onto the forms of writing about art that often go uncommented on, almost as if they were not forms, kinds of narrative. Not that I’m a big believer in mimesis when it comes to writing in a manner “like” the art about which one writes, but that one way to begin to unpack the question of why Harrison might be having her moment in the sun is in the way her sculpture and photography draw attention—reflexively—to their respective media, their histories, and their modes of reception. In other words, one thing Harrison’s work makes inescapable is the fact of how art materially instantiates the reality or fictionality of the discourses it provokes. By which I mean that to convey most sinuously the complexities of a given work of art, one may have to embrace forms and modes of address beyond art history or aesthetics. For example, consider screening thought about the nonvisual or nonretinal through Patty Duke—as representative of moving from blindness-as-vision (Patty as Helen) to insight-as-vision (Patty as Anne Sullivan).

What are the questions that should be asked about Harrison’s sculptures and photographs? In the otherwise punitive October “roundtable” on the state of criticism, curator Helen Molesworth proffers that Harrison’s “work is, actually, deeply invested in the texts that many of the [October school] have produced about Minimalism and phenomenology and the role of the photograph in spectacle culture” and that the work “maybe isn’t recognized by the very people with whom she’s trying to have a dialogue.” Elsewhere, art historian and October editor George Baker nominates Harrison’s “insistence on confronting the aporia between the legacies of Constructivism and the readymade . . . and the almost curatorial use of sculpture as a display surface for photographs” as crucial for grappling with how her work produces meaning and with the meanings produced. There’s nothing wrong per se with either of these critical takes, yet neither provides help in considering the obvious and sustained elements in the artist’s work: her brilliant consistent deployment of star culture (photographic appearances of Bo Derek, Michael Jackson, Johnny Carson, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando) and color (ballerina pink, shit brown, jade, glittering disco blue). These aren’t just decorative or whimsical components (although decoration and whimsy are matters contemplated through the work).

Harrison isn’t opposing Constructivism and Marlon Brando; nor is she placing her work between the two But her sculpture and photography preemptively destabilize any reading that would allow the art historical to rationalize the work—by and/or with the frivolous pleasure of color, of post-Fortensky–These Old Broads Liz, of Dr. Moreau –fat–“Lying for a Living” Marlon, of the pancake-makeup, friend-of-the–David Gests derangement appearing under the sign of Michael Jackson. I’m not certain that this project is ever to be concluded, yet the attempt would seem to be to negotiate forms of thought in a manner analogous to Harrison’s movement through media, not settling for either photography or sculpture or even photography-cum-sculpture, in which each medium serves as a point of return and difference. Harrison is not putting photography and sculpture together to hybridize media or to present neo-Rauschenbergian combines; she’s using them to consider what it would mean, post-postmedium, to endeavor something that would be “sculpture” or “photography,” historically informed but not nostalgic redux. Nothing so programmatic as making sculptures to represent the cultural moment and its lack of a quorum when it comes to whether art matters or what its key critical issues might be, Harrison’s work nonetheless conveys such concerns—the fact that Sister Wendy and Liz Taylor and Becky the Cripple/Photographer have as much to contribute concerning opticality and vision as does any esteemed art historian.

Harrison’s sculpture spatializes and is constructed out of such a critical dilemma. She is taking apart and juxtaposing the constitutive elements of photography and sculpture in a manner reflecting on and influenced by the work of artists from a previous generation, in particular Cady Noland. Where Noland’s personages usually invoke noir Americanness, Harrison’s truck in the bizarre facticity of existence. Eschewing Noland’s use of silkscreening and employment of newspaper and/or tabloid images (in a manner related to Warhol’s paintings) as sculptural elements, Harrison uses actual photographs and presents sculpture as sculpture (rather than as a Noland-esque stand-in); yet, in a manner recalling Noland, she is sorting out the differences and connections between represented and presented space while pursuing formal issues of medium and why such an approach is still credible.

An example of how cogently Harrison presents some of these concerns is seen in 5 x 7s (A&R Quality Photo. . .), 1996, for which the artist had the same negative of a naturally abstract anthill developed at ten stores or labs, requesting an identical process and picture size each time. Each photo came back looking different, in a comically variegated range of hues, and one of the developed images was larger than the requested five-by-seven. Framed together they provide a witty commentary on the medium, on the production and reception of sameness, on the absence of a standard, even of standardization. Harrison opens up the potential of the situation to attempt to respond to the demands of a culture of too much. I don’t think the flux or absence is supposed to be deplorable or depressing.

The Honey Collector, 2002: Red & White Honey / US Grade A. Pure Natural / Honey Brother / uncooked no preservatives / Clover Honey. Dutch Gold / US Grade A / Clover / Pure Honey. Sandt’s / Pure Honey / Pure / Clover Honey. SueBee / Premium / Clover / Honey / US Grade A Fancy White Pure Honey. Gunter’s / Pure Honey / Clover / 100% Natural US Grade A. Clover Honey / Dawes Hill / Once Again Nut Butter / Dawes Hill Honey. Nature’s Sweetest Miracle / Stoller’s / Pure / Clover / Honey. Krasdale / US Grade A Fancy / HONEY / Clover. Sandt’s / Natural Unfiltered / Clover / Pure Honey. I write out the labels to highlight the strangeness and poetry of Harrison’s decision not to choose simply a single kind of honey bear. Collector, she is valuing difference, multiplicity, and the minute distinctions that make things matter and create difference. The plastic creatures in The Honey Collector, 2002, could be the small pets taken care of by reliable Debra, whose ad on another side of the sculpture announces: “RELIABLE CAT-SITTER / WILL TAKE CARE OF / YOUR CATS & OTHER SMALL PETS / IN YOUR HOME / REASONABLE RATE / EXCELLENT REFERENCES / DEBRA (212) XXX–3240.’” The honey bears punctuate one section of the work’s different horizontal, vertical, and almost topographical planes—which at times suggest shelf as stage or stage as shelf (where performers are displayed)—that make up the work’s mauve, almost constructivist form. Here Harrison is staging questions about the history of sculpture (its theatricality; its unfinished investigation of sculpture and base; its relation to props, furniture, stuff). By including a photo of Brando, she’s plumping out ideas of mass; sculpture’s relation to bodies and, since the shot seems to be from the actor’s self-directed western opus, One-Eyed Jacks, to cinematic horizontality, space filled with movement. Diagramming the difference within similitude, the honey bear labels display the fat, dizzying range of difference among nearly identical products. Debra doesn’t want to be taken for just any other cat-sitter even though her ad is like so many others seen on coffee house or grocery market bulletin boards. Marlon advertises Marlonness (identity; identicality) as well as masculinity and its consumption. Big sweet-eater, he bares the impact of reference on the body. The burden of referential honey his presence asks: Honey, how much can anyone bear? Lavender brightness, funny honey bears, Marlon’s perseverance—The Honey Collector sweetens the potentially unbearable by refusing simply to consume it or ignore it. It owns up to it, collecting the situation.

A subtle, brilliant feminist current courses through Harrison’s work as well. Connecting the issues of surplus and multiplicity with the feminine (and putting a witty spin on Haim Steinbach’s shelving), for Teaching Bo to Count Backwards, 1996-97, Harrison places cans of olives and photos of Bo on an inverted white gutter, from where we look up to see a literal star. The woman who for a time embodied a number (“10”) seems to consider self-definition and a life apart from her scary late husband, John, as she struggles to count the olives on the various cans arranged in stacks to the side of the photos she appears in. At first, Bo seems perplexed, bewildered by how many olives there are. There are too many; she rests her taxed skull on her husband’s shoulder. Then she looks as if she might begin to get it—the number of olives—at the same time figuring out that she could do so solo. She’s happiest when the label shows only a single olive. Bo can easily count one olive—and she can do it by herself. Everyone may experience Bo-like difficulties. It may be appealing to accomplish a Bo-like surety (one is one), but to speak only in the realm of art—what is the beau and what is not; how to proceed when there’s no opposition and too many options to count—means not just a self-forgetting (knowing only one, Bo never could begin a search for self-knowledge [“Io”]) but an enervated accounting of culture.

A still from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant provides In the Zoo, 2001, not only a mood but also a palette and materials. Unlike many of Harrison’s pieces, what’s depicted in the photograph gets represented (therefore changed) in the space of the sculpture itself. The teal blue phone snaking through part of In the Zoo is off the hook, unlike the teal blue phone in the film still; there, it rests on the polar bear shag next to which Petra waits, her bottle of vodka dulling the harshness of waiting. The photo of Petra is dinky compared to another image it abuts, an almost completely blurred picture of a rooster in a zoo. Cardboard with packing tape attempts to cover part of the lower parts of the makeshift sculpture, barely holding it together. A sign with the handwritten words 3 MILE ISLAND hangs from the piece’s midregion. A study in tans, teal, and pink connoting an obsolescent phone booth, In the Zoo delivers the nuclear meltdown of love suspended. Is meaning busy or does it never call? Tears wrench emotion but cleanse after blurring vision. The bitter philosophy of Petra, not Immanuel, suggests a place for a Fourth Critique. Not jettisoning the lessons of neo-formalist, neo-Kantian critique but not simply kowtowing to them either, responding to Harrison’s work (as to the best of her contemporaries) compels a response enfolding the frivolous, the stupid, the fatly intractable, a Ronellian beyond of knowledge. The phone may be off the hook, but we’re not.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.