New York

Margaret Harrison

It is nearly impossible to discuss the art of Margaret Harrison without addressing her politics. Harrison is not so much an artist with a socio-political cause as she is a serious feminist activist who has chosen a traditional art medium with which to communicate. If this sounds like an introduction to the ineffectual but earnest outpourings of liberal pop rhetoric with high art trappings, it’s not all so easily categorized. When Harrison presents a large amount of highly technical material, both textual and visual, documenting the historical conditions of modern Western women in the work force, the effect, as the treatment, is far from superficial Though her large collage work includes drawing, it functions primarily as illustrative support for newspaper clippings and xeroxes of legal documents which take a good deal of reading concentration. Content is clearly subordinate to form, but not completely. Neither, despite Harrison’s cool reserve and commitment to extensive research, is emotive content. Her detached imagery is also subjective—it demands that the viewer become acquainted with an artist whose feminist worldview, when it is articulated most clearly, is neither fashionable, newly acquired, hostile or defensive it is deliberately and pragmatically vital.

Harrison’s most effective art is a careful blending of dry fact and emotive fact, the latter being the kind that has taken on almost mythic proportions. Of the five works in the show, ranging from 1977 to 1980. the two works from 1978, Homeworkers and Rape were the most compelling. Homeworkers combines extensive documentation of the work experience of two British women with legal documentation testifying to the not unfamiliar schism between law and justice, and an interpretative painting/collage about the equally persistent but more modern schism between the illusory portraits of women in Western media and the reality of their working lives. It is a lot of visual information presented in a structurally imposing way; and the concentration of highly-charged evidence contrasts sharply with the cool formality of the presentation. Rape, which with its title alone could have resulted in visceral revulsion from a less careful artist, is again dealt with “technically.” Harrison provides documentation of abuse with newspaper clippings including international reports of the legal responses to victims and attackers. Some of the reports aren’t predictably one-sided one tells of a woman who took “justice” into her own hands by castrating her two attackers, and of the legal punishment she received. The distortion of sex roles with which Harrison is concerned, of course, isn’t only female. One magazine advertisement reads: In today’s infantry, you need a lot more up top to handle the weapons below." Harrison dosesn’t add more hysteria to an issue that doesn’t need it—again, her treatment is not a frontal advance, but an oblique, determined one.

When Harrison is least effective, it is because she either relies on the viewer to fill in the gaps with clichés or because she imposes a personal view in an obtuse manner. The earliest piece, From Rosa Luxemburg to Janis Joplin, done for an International Women’s Exhibition in Germany is a gesture which can be understood only if one is sympathetic to Harrison’s unexplained connections between the artist’s sketchy renderings of Annie Oakley, Rosa Luxemburg, Janis Joplin and the Bride of Frankenstein, to name a few. The gesture was expedient like the initial “Black is Beautiful” propaganda of the ’60s, the artist evidently thought that the urgency of the message justified its obviousness. Her two latest works, Art Work and Craftwork, are the most personal gestures, devoid of coherent statements clichéd or otherwise. Craftwork presents examples of “female” handiwork in three different mediums—the actual item. a photograph and a painting. Art Work deals with the role of the female artist in a society that continues to be, to use Harrison’s word “patriarchical” but she only superficially relates the lives of famous historical husbands and female relatives. What she avoids makes Art Work seem merely rhetorical, and one senses that that which would give it more weight, would, ironically be more personal than political.

Harrison s political voice is most credible when she is aware that her audience is neither full of sympathetic women ready to forget fine distinctions in the name of idealism, nor women viewing her art to be “awakened.” It is this tactical understanding which saves her best art from drowning in generalized slogans—it is then that her intonation is most distinct.

Joan Casademont