Hilary Harp

Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial

Part of “The Challenge Exhibitions” (a series of juried shows inaugurated in 1978 that provides young artists with the opportunity to show their work), Hilary Harp’s exhibition of interactive sculptures owed as much to a childlike fascination with Americana as to the punning spirit of Marcel Duchamp. Taking Duchamp’s precept that the observer must complete the work of art literally, these ultimately metaphysical constructions require the viewer’s physical interaction. Sunrise, 1994—a miniature, stagelike landscape—hung from the wall, against which a translucent paper sun rose and fell as the viewer turned a large cogwheel. The corniness of this image made you feel rather self-conscious, as if someone were watching you being taken in by this visual cliche. But with physical engagement caine submission to the theatrics of the moment, a state of suspension between the sublime and the absurd. By contrast, the only participation Crying Clown, 1993, required was that the tank be refilled: water dripped from a Plexiglas tank into the back of a toy clown’s head and tears fell from his eyes into a bucket on the floor. This piece poignantly exposed the double nature of this tragicomic figure.

The juxtaposition of the most ambitious work, Resuscitated Bison, with Field of Flowers (both 1994) evoked a particular moment in American history and was emblematic of the poetic nostalgia that seemed to infuse all the works in the show. Here the viewer could set two things in motion simultaneously: a lever closed the bellows, forcing air into a hidden bladder inside the life-sized, fur-covered bison, making it seem as if it were breathing; and a foot pedal activated a motor that turned cams that hit flaps, etc., until the plastic flowers seemed to be swaying beneath a prairie breeze. This display of cause and effect served as a tongue-in-cheek response to those unanswerable questions five-year-old kids like to ask. What makes the sun rise? Where does the wind that blows these flowers come from? Placing the magic back in our hands, Harp’s inspired mechanics respond with “yankee ingenuity” and a spirit worthy of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Both may be lost to us, but the general feeling, the urge to see the world as if for the first time remains.

Eileen Neff