San Francisco

Harold Paris

Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Since his arrival in Berkeley in 1960, Harold Paris has explored a wide variety of materials, pioneering in the use of direct bronze casting processes and also playing a seminal role in the “pot palace” ceramic studio centered on Peter Voulkos. His art has been an intriguing amalgamation of technical tour de force, spiritualism and social concern.

Paris has worked as printmaker, sculptor, performance artist and filmmaker, often mixing forms and ideas to create works of a highly theatrical nature. While Paris has influenced Bay Area art as an educator, his own art has often been contradictory to or separate from the mainstream style. (For example, Paris chose to produce austere environments when Funk reached its Northern California apex during the last decade.)

Unlike many of his contemporaries who matriculated out of a California “be here now” esthetic, Paris’ consciousness has remained firmly rooted in his Jewish upbringing and old-world sensibility. Underlying his eclectic use of materials is a very definite and traditional religious concern for the human condition. From his early Buchenwald print suite to the soul series created in response to Berkeley politics in the late ’60s, Paris has attempted to comprehend and possibly expurgate the tragedies of the past 40 years. In his best works, particularly the monumental ceramic walls, Paris has articulated his spiritual concerns while avoiding the literalism which on occasion has turned his art into uncomfortable melodrama.

“The 26 Days of John Little” series developed as a response to the death of the artist’s brother-in-law at the age of 26. Just as Paris’ soul series reflected the political climate and new technological developments of the ’60s, the most recent work incorporates a personal theme and technology (pressed paper) that touches upon the inwardness and fragility of the ’70s consciousness. His most recent exhibition is a diverse and ambitious presentation; however, Paris’ penchant for symbolism and theatricality sometimes overwhelms his art.

Two freestanding sculptures dominated the gallery. The Unreality of Looking Out a Window (Female) is a large bedlike platform with a net canopy suspended by a pulley system attached to the ceiling. Implanted in the surface are a variety of objects, including a broken wine glass with red napkin, pin cushion and cotton swabbing. Imprints of other materials including a window shade cord are visible in the rough, off-white surface of the platform. Adjacent to the main piece is a folding canvas stool with a top hat resting against its bottom rung.

The Nonacquiescence of a Laughing Chelmite resembles a doctor’s examination table. On the platform a white dacron shroud covers a bouquet of artificial pink roses. At one end of the piece rests a rounded skull-like shape, wrapped in cloth, on which a collage of minute figures looking through a window has been applied.

Both sculptures recall Paris’s early ’60s work, in which broken, discarded objects were used in a direct casting process. The pressed paper applied over the real object renders the original structure ambiguous; this contradiction between the real and the invented recurs throughout Paris’ sculptures and is one of the stronger aspects of his work.

Assemblage demands either complete specificity or a juxtaposition of objects in which individual elements are subordinated to the total theme or tableau effect. Kienholz’s environments entice because they forge a macabre but obvious link with reality. Hudson’s assemblages work because they subordinate individual symbolic elements to a deliberately kitsch tableau.

While Paris’ sculptures have antecedents in the assemblage tradition, they are weakened by a tedious symbolism and unnecessary dependence on histrionics. The Unreality of Looking Out a Window (Female) has the sensation of a hospital bed, but is combined with objects derived from the Jewish wedding ceremony. The Nonacquiescence of a Laughing Chelmite reiterates aspects of death in a clichéd emotional tableau of flowers and shrouds.

Paris attempts to operate on several levels concurrently in these semi-environmental pieces, but the ambiguities do not work well together. Theatricality, particularly in the anecdotal placement of the camp stool and top hat, seems simplistic and predictably cute. Paris’ objects are so loaded with either religious or art historical significance that the viewer cannot rise above the blatant symbolism. Subtleties do exist, but their effect is negated.

The monotypes comprising “The 26 Days of John Little” series form the nucleus and most resolved part of the exhibition. Produced by collaging elements onto a 14 by 18-inch lithograph of an open window on a gray field, Paris uses the most mundane objects possible. Cellophane tape, string, acetate, straws and bits of paper are worked into the surface both through direct application and by tearing and cutting into the lithograph. The paper is sometimes altered with graphite and paint, and the colors are kept as subtle, almost monochromatic, blues, greens and pale pinks. Paris puts the repetitive window motif to good use, obscuring, restating and continually altering the form. Elements of blue or clear plastic are introduced so that a deep space effect operates in certain pieces. When viewed sequentially the collages visually open and close in space.

“The 26 Days of John Little” is accompanied by a diaristic catalogue essay/eulogy in which the artist writes about his brother-in-law. This essay attempts to veil the monotypes with the same literal excessiveness which weakens the sculptural works. However, the collages, devoid of objective elements, do not necessarily fall prey to literalism or direct association. Consequently the viewer has the flexibility to make as many or as few associations as he deems appropriate. The collages have a universality and implied pathos, but unlike the large sculptural pieces, these qualities are developed in a restrained and subtle manner which shows Paris to his best advantage.

Hal Fischer