New York

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

The Harrisons are an art-world anomaly who look for slippages in the world. The ongoing collaboration between Helen (a teacher/scholar) and Newton (an artist/teacher) has generated a series of productions and investigations during the past 15 years that are at once instructional, instigatory, optimistic, and accessible. It is likely that, in the early years of their collaboration, Helen’s expertise as a researcher led them to new insights into changing relationships, while Newton’s esthetic focus pushed the work beyond documentation and problem-solving to art. But it is clear that their sensibilities have become fluid and dynamic in the course of many joint ventures. This exhibition, entitled “Nobody Told Us When to Stop Thinking . . . ” featured a selection of their projects, most of them recent.

The work shown, which deals with what is normally the province of environmental and regional planners, transforms and extends conventional strategies of planning. Few of the Harrisons’ projects reach finite conclusions: they begin with discourse, and each new development contributes to the dialogue.

One of their most ambitious projects has been The Guadalupe Meander: A Refugia for San Jose, 1983–87. For this highly industrialized urban center in California’s “Silicon Valley” they proposed a river walk, a tranquil refuge from the city’s clutter and clatter. Ironically, San Jose has appropriated the language and sentiment of the Harrisons’ poetic and pragmatic solution but chose to create a river walk of concrete embankments, a mean place inhospitable to humans and wildlife alike. The artists still hope for some belated wisdom on the part of the community.

Another project in its earliest stages of development has a tragic urgency. While participating in the Sao Paulo Bienale, the Harrisons heard of a nearby community where infants were born with sections of their brains missing. Newton went to investigate reports of emissions of corrosive, flammable gases from the factories of multinational corporations, which were clearly linked to the environmental conditions that were causing the high incidence of brain damage. In Breathing Cubatão, 1987, the Harrisons proposed a system of scrubbers for the smokestacks at these factories; they also urged the companies to consider other technologies to cleanse the effluents being released into river and ground water. As with all of their projects, the story of Cubatão is simply and eloquently told through narrative, site photos and maps, and sketches.

The Harrisons, unencumbered by the conventions of professional problem-solving mechanisms, approach each challenge with remarkable freshness, pragmatism, and a “Why-didn’t-I-think-of-that?” directness. Without addressing the question of the difference between art and life, they find their work in the areas that have often been picked over or abandoned by traditional disciplines. Each project contains a dense, dialectical narrative that frames the issue, illuminates their unique version of collective invention, and confirms their desire to make an art of consequence. The world is their laboratory for a continuing series of experiments, a process that is catalyzed by their energy and incisiveness and the creative nature of their protean collaboration.

Patricia C. Phillips