Susan Harrington

Peregrine Gallery

Dissolution is both a technique and a theme for Susan Harrington. She favors the diptych format, usually making one of the images a face seen close-up. Many of these she renders loosely, which leaves them blurred, fading into or out of our awareness. Harrington also employs cross-hatching to suggest the art historical sources of some of her figures, but at times she lets even that dissolve into an indistinct pattern. In When Pairs Conspire, 1989, tiny figures placed against the landscape seem on the verge of being swallowed up. Their small outlines appear as generalized silhouettes.

Film terms come naturally when describing Harrington’s work, and, as in film, she uses the dissolve to shift from one image to another. Her most unsettlng work frequently features subjects who appear to be caught at some midpoint in the process of fading in or out and are now hopelessly enmeshed. The resulting amalgam, how-ever, is not so much grotesque as it is erotically charged. Thematically, Harrington pursues dissolution as a psychic state both feared and longed for. In the past she has used images of people either drowning or adrift, but in this show such references were few. What she addresses more directly than ever is the idea of the personality in dissolution. The faces she depicts, usually female, could be either calling out or asking for silence. The moment depicted is always that at which the ego is loosening its grip on the psyche, whether in madness, sleep, sexual pleasure, or death. These images are painful because the artist never makes clear if she views this dissolution as an irretrievable loss or as a willing abandonment of control.

Harrington’s work is outrageously melodramatic. Actions are played out at a fever pitch and her heroines are faced with unrelenting peril. It might be tempting to “accuse” these performers of histrionics, as though more subtle emotions were somehow intrinsically more valid, but the extravagances of melodrama are particularly well-suited to the psychic states the artist chooses to explore. Overacting equals bad acting only if it doesn’t work, and Harrington seldom fails to exhibit the skill and vision to maintain her melodramatic conventions. She also plays with the potential they carry with them for absurdity. In Swimming in Cambodia, 1988, she presents the most horrific face of all. Crusty, egg-yolk yellow paint covers an undercoat of red, and the eyes and mouth have been filled with white. There is an undeniable reference to Edvard Munch’s much overused “scream,” but across this conventional image of psychic collapse Harrington has placed in silhouette two Victorian women carrying serving trays, angled so that they are doing an improbable strut. The white patch beneath them is possibly their shadow, but given the evidence in other of Harrington’s pieces, it could also be the outline of a corpse.

Charles Dee Mitchell