View of “Consider the Lobster,” 2009, CCS Galleries, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Foreground: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2007. Middleground: The Eagle Has Landed, 2006. Background: Car Stereo Parkway, 2005. Photo: Jason Mandella.

View of “Consider the Lobster,” 2009, CCS Galleries, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Foreground: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2007. Middleground: The Eagle Has Landed, 2006. Background: Car Stereo Parkway, 2005. Photo: Jason Mandella.

Rachel Harrison

View of “Consider the Lobster,” 2009, CCS Galleries, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Foreground: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2007. Middleground: The Eagle Has Landed, 2006. Background: Car Stereo Parkway, 2005. Photo: Jason Mandella.

RACHEL HARRISON HAS A FLAIR FOR TITLES, even when borrowed, as in the case of her current midcareer survey, “Consider the Lobster.” The name comes from a collection of David Foster Wallace’s magazine articles, one of which finds the author at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, pondering the “morality” of the American ritual of lobster boiling. Harrison’s choice of title is explicitly referenced near the entrance to a companion exhibition with a projection of László Moholy-Nagy’s 1936 film Lobsters, but it’s worth considering how this “garbage man” of the sea, to borrow Wallace’s epithet, might relate more obliquely to her formal and conceptual practices. Does she mean to address American pastimes (like lobster festivals) in general, seemingly benign activities that sometimes willfully obscure cruelty? Is Harrison evoking the apparently ungainly movements of this crustacean? Does the lobster’s diet of underwater detritus point to her own accumulations? Harrison, after all, routinely combines found objects with things she makes, emphasizing the strangeness, humor, and even lunacy that lurk beneath the surfaces of mass-cultural artifacts. Witness the uncanny object that hangs at the beginning of the first installation in the show, an object that could be seen as a psychiatric hospital’s bulletin board listing therapy assignments for deviant inmates. But what seems a literal sign of madness under the control of surveillance is actually the directory of offerings from FEGS, a nonprofit health and human-services organization. Harrison’s brilliant and witty use of this particular object is typical of her strategy of exploiting the readymade to imbue her work with the attributes of modern life, whether bizarre or well ordered. Like the lobster, Harrison is a scavenger, rooting in the waste bin of our material lives.

In the Bard survey, curated by Tom Eccles, Harrison goes to some lengths to defamiliarize institutional museum space and exhibition practices, playing with the idea of pedestal and wall and, in certain pieces, exploiting the ad hoc qualities of assemblage to undermine the sense that a work is even finished. In the four installations that unfold, one after the other—Snake in the Grass, 1997; Perth Amboy, 2001; Indigenous Parts, IV, 1995–2009; and Car Stereo Parkway, 2005—and then in a room of individual sculptures and another of videos, she addresses contemporary experience with a tough tentativeness. Harrison courts contingency and provisionality, actualizing the quick changes, instant attention shifts, and nomadism of contemporary life. She prefers, as much as possible, to preserve a sense of flux, a state that is typical of her studio practice, where elements are gathered, moved around, swapped out, etc. We get the feeling that she may still be pondering her decisions. At Bard, walls are not pristinely finished according to regular museum etiquette but are left with gouged grooves revealing the two-by-fours behind the Sheetrock of former installations. Sculptures are left on the dollies that rolled them into place, though these dollies turn out to be integral parts of the sculptures. A gap in a wall between two galleries is closed with a pileup of leftover pedestals, recycled for a new use.

But do not be fooled by this casualness. As with Wallace’s edgy essays on popular culture, Harrison’s assembled elements can be read closely, almost like poetry. She is also the equal (in witty social analysis and exuberant use of material culture) of Cady Noland and Mike Kelley, Isa Genzken and Franz West, and, further back, the Rauschenberg of the Combines. Yet the true origins of Harrison’s aesthetic may be traced back to the artists and attitudes of Colin de Land’s New York galleries of the 1980s and ’90s, Vox Populi and American Fine Arts Co., where a down-market, funny, casual, and significant intellectual bohemianism flourished, somewhat under the radar of the booming art market. While Harrison’s work feels casual in its conceptualism and visual pleasures, it is also highly investigatory, with virtuoso combinations of painting and the kitschy flamboyance of found color, materials, and language. Spectacle for its own sake is not off-limits to her. Glitter, in many forms, has its appeal. A sequined garment festoons one sculpture, metallic fringe another. As far as language is concerned, one of my favorite moments in the exhibition occurs in an interstitial space, a hall with a window whose sill Harrison painted lime green and filled with cans of air freshener with great names: Pan-Aroma, Haze by Airwick, Money House Blessing Potpourri.

The sprawling mixed-media installation Indigenous Parts, IV, contains work that spans the past fourteen years of Harrison’s career and best typifies her seemingly casual approach. As with the choreography in a Merce Cunningham dance, there is no center, and events that have equal weight occur simultaneously across the gallery. There is a video of a PBS film of ants at work. Atop a pedestal covered in gray wash sits an abstract blob made of Parex stucco painted gold, orange, and yellow, embellished with a fallen streamer that pools on the floor. Two assemblages act as homages to artists Harrison admires: One involves a reproduction of Hans Haacke’s iconic 1982 painting of Ronald Reagan paired with a text on Marcel Broodthaers; the other includes a typescript for Jack Smith’s Brassieres of Atlantis: A Lobster Sunset Pageant in a stainless-steel mixing bowl. These works are not highlighted, but share equal billing with a ink-jet print of a thrift-shop painting of Moses, an upside-down poster of Mel Gibson, and a photograph of Cher. This miscellany, all arranged off the grid and apparently at random, finds its partner in a video that Harrison shot at a country auction, where winning bidders haul off a similarly aleatory combination of other people’s junk. One of my favorite pieces in the room is a structure of unfinished wooden boards with stickers advertising phone cards for foreign countries, paired with an old blue telephone with the receiver off the hook.

If the overall conception of Indigenous Parts is apparently random yet brilliantly staged, then, in comparison, the two earliest installations seem more pointed and even polemical. Like Noland’s re-presentation of radical figures from the recent past, such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Patty Hearst, Harrison’s Snake in the Grass centers on a historic event. She appropriated photos of Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, the site of the JFK assassination, that show people sitting on the grass and policemen running. An extract of the Warren Report, a shelf of six prints of the same close-up photograph of grass (each printed in a different shade, from green to brown), and an image of a Cuban man holding a photo further literalize the event, but Harrison allows other objects to encourage free association and a poetic sense of chance. As with the ants at work and the scavenging lobster, she reaches for an animal analogy, here presenting a green snow shovel (an homage to Duchamp) draped with a massive snakeskin—a symbol of malevolence and suspicion.

In Perth Amboy, Harrison opens the floodgates of color and the handmade. On the walls hang photographs of a window of a split-level house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where the Virgin Mary was reportedly sighted. Meditations on the power of beholding, these images equate modernism’s obsession with absorptive color and abstraction with the site of a religious vision. This “miracle” is analogized in a series of tableaux, involving small found objects, that also suggest the theme of absorption in color. A figurine of a Native American in a headdress stares at a blurry orange and brown photograph framed in gold, resting on an easel; a Becky doll (Barbie’s wheelchair-bound friend) with a camera around her neck beholds a tacked-up photo of a green wall and an empty pool; a black Formica pedestal supports a figurine of a Chinese philosopher in a pale blue robe who studies a similarly colored, lumpy scholar’s rock of Harrison’s making.

Harrison’s critical rethinking of figurative sculpture, a prominent concern in recent art, reveals her insouciant embrace of the migration of media and the possibility that any kind of material can suggest the persona that a sculpture, according to its title, is meant to evoke. We see this in Marilyn with Wall, 2004, a Sheetrock pile affixed with the iconic photograph of Marilyn Monroe that Warhol used in his paintings, and in Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2007, where a female mannequin wearing sportswear and oversize glasses is made Janus-faced by the addition of a latex Dick Cheney mask on the back of her head. It’s not hard to get the evocation of a literally two-faced Cheney, but we have to work a little harder to understand why Harrison named the whole after Fassbinder. The title registers simultaneously the artist’s erudition, politics, and humor with its synthesis of words and images that can be unlocked, like the lobster, in many ways (most of them pointing to a wry, gender-bending take on a prominent evil person). These paradoxes and contradictions make strange sense in the dense visual poetry of Harrison’s exhibition, and they are also what make it such an important contribution to this moment.

Across the foyer from Harrison’s solo presentation in the CCS Galleries, the Hessel Museum of Art contains a companion sequence of exhibitions, collectively titled “And Other Essays.” Here six artists (Nayland Blake, Tom Burr, Harry Dodge, Alix Lambert, Allen Ruppersberg, and Andrea Zittel) present works of their own and those of other artists, drawn primarily from the Marieluise Hessel Collection. These are supplemented by selections made by Eccles and Harrison of her work and those of more artists still—a layered approach that invites unforeseen connections and confuses the boundary between curator and artist. In inviting a group of artists to join her as organizers and subjects of the show, Harrison extended her visual thinking into curating. Curating comes in many varieties, but chief among them are, on the one hand, a didactic, linear approach to a single career or canonical story and, on the other, the presentation of disparate objects according to a more intuitive logic, which is not always made explicit to the viewer. The second mode prevails in the “Essays” and it succeeds. Not because we always understand the hidden backstories (just as we can never know all of Harrison’s oblique associations and intentions), but because the variety of approaches and the visual surprise of the hangings are so refreshing and because the works in these ensembles—brought together for so many unknown reasons—look as if, in strange and unexpected ways, they belong together.

“Consider the Lobster” and “And Other Essays” remain on view until Dec. 20. “Consider the Lobster” travels to the Whitechapel Gallery, London, April 27–June 20, 2010.

Elisabeth Sussman is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.