New York

Rachel Harrison

YOU MIGHT HAVE HESITATED at the gallery door, thinking the installation was still in progress, what with all the big folded sheets of brown corrugated cardboard standing there as if they'd just been removed from some large rectangular objects. A few steps in yielded a different impression: These simple configurations were the show, a piece that formed a kind of open labyrinth. But not the whole show: Further progress into the room revealed several framed color photographs on the wall and at least one object, resting on a mirrored pedestal (all works 2001). In fact, there turned out to be numerous sculptural tableaux concealed among the cardboard nooks: arrangements of found objects, often with figurative elements (dolls, figurines, etc.), representing situations of artistic spectatorship. On the mirrored base, for instance, was a sort of abstract sculpture (made from a white cardboard mailing envelope) faced by an admiring little family of plastic dogs, while elsewhere Barbie's pal Becky, peering curiously from her wheelchair like James Stewart in Rear Window, fixed her gaze on an unframed photo of a Hollywood “blue screen” (actually it was green), a sort of vast monochrome painting meant to disappear in service of this or that special effect.

Most of the framed photos captured an undistinguished two-story slat-sided house. There were hands touching its windows in every picture, sometimes from the inside (so that one could not see much of the hands' owners, just the palms pressed against the pane), but more often arms reached through the metal child-guards at the open window to touch the outside of the glass. Here, as it turns out, a miracle had occurred last fall: The Virgin Mary had become visible in or on this pane of glass. For weeks people gathered outside the New Jersey house hoping to witness the apparition's return; from within, they hope to commune with the mystery by touching the site of its occurrence.

Seeing is believing, it's said, but these images suggest that seeing is not enough: True belief may require direct contact. I wouldn't have thought a sensation like spiritual hunger could be so forcibly expressed as it is here by these searching hands and arms. Of course, Harrison knows that this ambivalence between contemplation and participation, distance and proximity in the realm of religious faith is related to one in the domain of art—one that sets photography and the readymade against sculpture and painting, all of which enter into her work. Photography suggests that seeing is sufficient, that merely to look at something in a certain way is already to endow it, at least incipiently, with the status of art. And of course the readymade only repeats the same claim more insistently. But sculpture and painting call for the laying on of hands, maintaining that the image one hopes to see can only arise at the point where the sense of touch has conjured something from a surface, that what's most important is what you can feel into visibility. Harrison seems to say that seeing and touching are both incomplete but indispensable paths to the realization of the exorbitant desires invested in art and faith.

Barry Schwabsky