Insert Awe Somewhere: How Rachel Harrison’s Sculptures Reframe Art History

Rachel Harrison: 20 × 24" (for CDL), 1999, wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, and chromogenic print, 22 by 19 by 18 inches. Photo Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART. Courtesy Greene Naftali Gallery, New York.

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One of the earliest sculptures by the artist  Rachel Harrison I have seen is 20 × 24″ (for CDL), created in 1999. It is not easy to describe this work, so bear with me for a moment, as this will take some doing. It is a wall-hung structure composed of wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, and a color photograph. The photo, in a cherry-red frame, shows Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, along with some people who are standing nearby. It appears to be a view of Courbet’s well-known vulva painting as exhibited in the Musée d’Orsay in the late 1990s (the work has since been rehung in a different gallery there). Affixed to the front of Harrison’s assemblage is a board that reads, in a white scrawl atop a violet field, $50.00 bet. It is not particularly easy to see the photograph—or the Courbet itself, therefore. The framed picture is nestled into the polystyrene construction, shielded by the frontal announcement of the low-stakes wager; the photograph sits on
a sort of shelf that seems to have been designed for it. In this sense, the photograph is about as framed as something can be, without being entirely hidden. There’s so much going on here—white acrylic mixed with cement slathered everywhere in a way that recalls the uneven texture of insulation, odd rectangular planes, a small painting that is also a weird hand-drawn sign with a narrative about a gamble (between or among whom, and what for?)—that one might even miss the photograph of the masterpiece.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we don’t. Rather, we home in, intrigued and attentive, and walk around to the left side of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) to have a closer look. In the snapshot three individuals huddle before a neighboring Courbet canvas, possibly Nude Woman with a Dog (1868). Nude Woman is not Courbet’s highest achievement, and anyway these people are less important. What we fixate on in Harrison’s photograph is a male figure, his back to us, who stands transfixed before The Origin of the World. He wears a black leather jacket, dark hair closely cropped. We cannot see his face, but we have the impression that his gaze is directed right into the cleft of Courbet’s subject. One could imagine his jaw slack, mouth arranged in a silent “Wow.” He’s like an arrow, pointing, and we don’t quite know whether to stare at the back of his head or to look at (into?) the infamous work of art.

What was that fifty-dollar bet about, again—and who is “CDL”? Is this some sort of “made you look” situation? A different sort of in-joke? Or, are we meant to recognize ourselves in the midst of a multigenerational act of transmission of styles of looking, i.e., tradition? And is there a critical message related to the “male gaze”? It occurs to us, too, that with its frame, the Courbet is almost the right size to be the referent of the title of the sculpture. We’re sure for a moment that we’ve solved the matter of the title, if not the elaborate framing/enwombing of the photograph. But not quite—the measurements are slightly off—that’s not it, either.

The disorientation 20 × 24″ (for CDL) engenders is thus spatial, material, linguistic, and also temporal, given the involvement of the history of Western art. Made three years after Harrison’s first solo exhibition, this sculpture has many of the hallmarks of her later practice, from the materials selected to the strategies deployed: use of polystyrene slabs and a liberal application of paint roughened with cement; a construction whose multiple sides invite multiple viewing positions, along with possibly contradictory readings; plays on language and history that keep the viewer guessing; the inclusion of manufactured objects the sculpture seems to grip, shelter, proffer, embrace; a title that feels autonomous from the object and thus like a work in itself; a joke about human posture
and/or sex, which is to say, a universal style of humor.

By including the anonymous snapshot of a young man whose fashion choices are easy to mock and who seems, himself, to have been transformed into a sculpture by the power of Courbet’s realism, before becoming Harrison’s own gawking readymade, the artist also indicates a series of conventions for the viewing and display of art, after the advent of postmodernism. 1. Stand before painting. 2. Obtain photographic reproduction. 3. Insert awe somewhere. But the young man Harrison’s photograph captures is in fact an exception to this theory of the floating signifier: Whereas he would seem to have come to the museum with the expectation of viewing “high art,” here, with The Origin of the World, he has landed on a realist painting that offers him an image that interests him differently, I think it’s fair to say. All he has to do is look, no elaborate rationale or hushed discourse (see trio next door at Nude Woman with a Dog) necessary. Thus, too, the odd compliance of this viewer’s body. The museum has surprised him by permitting him to stare at something he genuinely wants to see.

Harrison has a point. A funny one, at that. And no doubt Harrison wouldn’t mind if the viewer of 20 × 24″ (for CDL) thought a little, too, about the strange history of that particular nineteenth-century canvas, which, conceived as bespoke porn and probably itself painted from a photograph, originally hung in an opulent bathroom and was concealed by a velvet curtain, making its way, as it changed hands, into a series of display boxes with false fronts showing other paintings; to be owned, after the Second World War, by a famous psychoanalyst, before being quietly donated to the Musée d’Orsay by the famous psychoanalyst’s widow, who had at one time been a movie star.1

The multiple stagings and framings of The Origin by its commissioner and later owners underscore both the frank obscenity of the painting and the need for props (including its grandiose title) to make it into an acceptable work of art. The painting’s concealment and, one assumes, performative unveiling among cronies, must have accorded it additional value, such that it transcended its possible status as a gynecological artifact. Harrison’s staging, on the other hand, takes the painting right back to this basic function, in part by showing how Courbet’s mercenary realism is of a part (pun intended) with contemporary commercial images. Her readymade guy knows well how to look at this shot, I mean, canvas.

In light of the above, it is not unusual for critics and scholars to emphasize the postmodern aspects of Harrison’s sculpture. Her work is ambiguous, multi-planar, and comprises objects and references that bounce from high to low, that require some technical prowess for their execution or that require none at all (i.e., are readymade), that are conceptually rigorous (require “reading”) or that address popular culture plainly and directly (“entertain”). There are some carnival beads or a photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio. There is a reference to Jeff Koons or Hanne Darboven. There is a trail of Styrofoam peanuts leading from the feet of a mannequin as well as ropes, garbage bags, food, taxidermied chickens, and accomplished drawings of Amy Winehouse that manage to eulogize the singer even as, in one fell colored-pencil swoop, they mock the economies of line favored by Willem de Kooning, along with two of de Kooning’s best-compensated imitators, Richard Prince and George Condo. As John Kelsey, one of Harrison’s most eloquent interpreters, puts it: “There is a point beyond which sculptural properties of material, form, and structure disperse into more hysterical outbreaks of style and vernacular reference, and this is the very point around which the best Harrisons tend to both blossom and congeal.”2 There’s also Harrison’s tendency to establish her constructions (what Kelsey calls her “complexes”) using polystyrene, best known for its use in buoyant disposable items: coffee cups, take-out containers. It’s the plastic we have liked to expand into foam, and also to condense into a high-impact variety as well as the sparkling cases that once contained everybody’s compact discs. While not as ubiquitous as polyethylene (grocery bags), polystyrene is a shape-shifter. Its refusal to degrade is matched by its receptivity, in its foam state, to carving, cutting, pressure.

I have never attempted to knock over a statue by Rachel Harrison, but given that polystyrene is almost always included in her materials lists—along with wild cards like “plastic pastry,” “latex Dick Cheney mask,” “La Morena salsa can,” and “Slim Jim display rack”—I’ve wondered if there would be a crash or, perhaps, a bounce. Maybe a soft tapping sound, a click or rustle. There would, of course, be a lot of other sounds after this, and I wouldn’t recommend the experiment. Yet, for all their incorporation of disparate materials, some of which originate in the 99-cent store, the Halloween center, the supermarket, Goodwill, Home Depot, and, one assumes, on Craigslist and eBay, Harrison’s works—even as they twist away from the viewer, sheltering a peculiar thing—do not seem dense. Their volume, in other words, does not connote or entail mass.

But Harrison’s refusal of monumentality and even wholeness has another effect. If we follow various semantic trails around and into the surfaces and planes of a Rachel Harrison like 20 × 24″ (for CDL) we discover that our inability to land on a single reading feels, paradoxically, not like the “correct” reading of the piece, not something verifiable, but rather a process that actually and unavoidably occurs. The title is specific, yet it’s baggy, seemingly intentionally so. The frontal sign and various white facades distract us further. This is to say that Harrison’s material and discursive frames get in the way, they compete and jostle; they threaten to become representational. They want to be figures, too. But at the same time, at the center of this flurry of formal and semantic elements threatening to become near-figures, is a clear and direct reflection on spectatorship and the role of realist representational styles, a nicely staged understatement: A guy sees something he likes. It’s this cutting and clever element of Harrison’s work, her focus on vernacular realism and pursuant ways of looking—an interest somewhat poorly acknowledged in previous writing on her sculpture and one I find to be a key element in her strategies of construction—that I would like to focus on for the remainder of my essay.

 

THE FOREVER POSTWAR

Harrison’s work is often compared with that of Robert Rauschenberg, whose Combines offer a visual if not methodological analogy. Harrison does not shy away from this association and even seems to encourage it,3 while, at the same time cultivating other conversations and confrontations: with the art of Henry Moore, for example, whose public sculpture Three Forms Vertebrae (Dallas Piece), 1978–79, she boldly augmented in 2013 in a not-entirely-complimentary fashion, with a gigantic hot-pink arrow pointing down at Moore’s work in front of Dallas City Hall (Moore to the Point). There is also the inevitable tie to Duchamp, due to the many manufactured objects she employs. We might see Louise Nevelson in Harrison’s slabs, as well.

I’m limiting myself to earlier twentieth-century references here—avoiding nods to relevant contemporary artists like Isa Genzken and the late Mike Kelley, or to Harrison’s New York–based contemporaries like Nicole Eisenman and Darren Bader—because although it can be difficult to pin down the meaning of single pieces by Harrison, there is a larger gambit at stake, one related, it seems to me, to the shifting fate of figuration in American art after the Second World War. The tension of the pre- and early postwar scene centered on the expression of political commitments in representational art, particularly through figuration and caricature in a social realist mode. Although Clement Greenberg’s canonical “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” dates from 1939, its effects reverberated on the other side of the international conflagration, as a confluence of wealth and need for visual symbols of the US’s newfound soft (as well as hard) power prevailed upon a generation of artists, mostly based in New York. The short version of this story, always a risky version to tell, is that the notion of representing “social issues” by means of a direct, figurative depiction, as in the socially engaged figurative styles of Thomas Hart Benton, Jacob Lawrence, and Ben Shahn, was outpaced by an elite leftism, what Greenberg had hinted at in his essay as formally pure “Athene,” the aesthetic heights of complex, imperial, urbane civilization—that which was diametrically opposed to kitsch, or pandering art for the masses.4 Abstract Expressionism was the alleged savior. Although it was perhaps difficult to see the anthropomorphic face of god in a painting by Jackson Pollock, one could (and was encouraged by the contemporary press to) see the face of some sort of conceptual deity, perhaps one corresponding to the dreadful instrumentalization of quantum mechanics.5

I often consider this early Cold War period of transition in relation to Rachel Harrison’s work. Her use of artfully scrubbed-on fields of paint on her polystyrene sculptures recalls the gradations of Mark Rothko, Pollock’s early semi-figurative canvases, or gestures made by a lesser-known contemporary, Byron Browne, in their variety. We see this in the sculptures featured in her exhibitions “If I Did It” (2007) and “The Help” (2012), both at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, and with even more pronounced clarity in the particolored mass that supports a prepubescent mannequin, nude save for a cape and an Abraham Lincoln mask worn on the back of their head with sunglasses, in Alexander the Great (2007). Alexander’s boulder is at once as slight as a kernel of popcorn and as symbolically loaded as Venus’s foam or a sun-burnished cloud rendered by Caspar David Friedrich, propping up as it does a two-faced imperial figure. Harrison’s application of paint here is a citation of a moment when artists on the left seemed to reject authoritarianism in the same breath as Communism, the depiction of presidents along with the depiction of heroic workers and immigrants. Although the rejection of figurative realism was far from universal and was in short order interrupted by the arrival of Pop, the fields of color and drops of paint the abstractionists favored made a bid for visceral excitements beyond language, even as they were blandly internationalist, covertly nationalistic, and, eventually, very selling. In spite of what Greenberg argued, they were a new mass ornament. What, after all, as Harrison’s Alexander seems to argue, looks kitschier today than a canvas by Pollock?

Harrison’s painting practice—for we should probably call it that, as she is a painter as well as a sculptor in many of her works—recalls this demise of social realist figurative styles, one that was apparently necessary for Americans to become world-class artists. Yet Harrison also resuscitates figuration in a social mode, often by way of photographs, drawings, and readymades. The immature figure in Alexander the Great, rising all too gamely out of its massive harlequin packing-peanut—as if in tribute to Amazon Prime (b. 2005)—is not an answer to any sort of question about the failure of figuration. Rather, the work is a series of store-bought (thrifted? stolen?) commercial readymades. It is a testament to the actual overwhelming and, let’s face it, uninterrupted success of figuration as a representational mode in the US: it is a stand-in for a stripped Barbie or Spiderman figurine, combined with a countenance on our money. Nothing, nothing at all has been worked out over the past seventy years by artists, and there isn’t really any “art world” of any significance, just proxy wars and manufacturing. Labor’s power ends at the feet of this plastic adolescent. Still, given the idiotic symmetry of its face and charming, guileless offer of a Jeff Gordon–themed bucket of paint rollers (?), it is hard not to laugh.6

Sliding into this storm of references and points of view (themselves frequently readymade) are the directness and vividness of many of Harrison’s titles, which frequently cite contemporary events, neologisms, public figures. I have already mentioned the O.J. Simpson autobiography citation (If I Did It), which does double duty as a counterfactual disavowal of authorship (“What, me, make art?”). The sculptures in “If I Did It” are in turn named for male celebrities: Fats Domino, Al Gore, Johnny Depp. They incorporate slightly unkind pieces of humor—a can of “Slim Fast,” a mercury-filled thermostat, an oversize pirate hoop earring (respectively)—such that each pillar or stack of blocks wears its designated readymade like an epithet. The oddly shaped constructions are handily roped into portraiture through the addition of names and accessories. Indeed, “If I Did It” seems to mock the very notion of pure abstraction. Although I like to think of Harrison coming upon the “identities” of the sculptures accidentally—via some fun pareidolic coincidence, a fortuitous squint of the eye—it seems more likely that she is deliberately recoding Ab Ex as Pop drag.

Harrison’s first solo show, in 1996 at Arena Gallery in Brooklyn, had a memorable, if nearly un-memorizable, name: “Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an eight-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a three-inch sphere?” This question was appropriated from an article in the New York Times on housing codes. Later, in 2004, Harrison culled another exhibition title from the press, “Posh Floored as Ali G Tackles Becks.” The former points up the bizarre results of objectivity as a rhetorical mode, while the latter calls our attention to an odd pun (“floored”) that springs to life in the midst of several assumed identities. And it’s not just these linguistic oddities from the recycling bin or browser history: Harrison likes literature, too. For a 2007 group of photographs, she made use of the title of Charles Darwin’s diary, The Voyage of the Beagle; a 2009 survey at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art was titled “Consider the Lobster,” after the essay by novelist David Foster Wallace. While I personally prefer the 1996 and 2004 titles, I’m not beyond seeing that the name of Darwin’s boat was fairly strange, while the name of Wallace’s essay was pretty normal (for someone reputed to be a genius). This language is decontextualized, pushed to a point of abstraction, then reconfigured, tied to new images and forms; as a result of this process it does, I have to say, become more insistent.

The title of the 1999 work that I mentioned at the outset of this essay acts as an unpredictable frame, one that both encloses the sculpture and gets in the way of its interpretation. I think of Harrison’s titles as shoring up the ambivalent space of figuration in her works and, by turns, getting stuck in it. They remind me of Marcel Duchamp’s explanation of what he learned from the poet, playwright, and novelist Raymond Roussel, i.e., that “everything can be done, especially when you describe it in words, and anything can be invented.”7 Duchamp credited the poet with the novel conceptual turn in his work, circa 1911 and 1912, a discovery of language’s own hermetic realities and worlds. Harrison’s titles can function in this way, as semiautonomous processes of signification, sometimes pointing back to phenomenal reality, culture, and history, sometimes glossing the object or installation they name, but never fully relinquishing their status as independent figures. If they are frames, they are competitive ones. They seem, however humorously or intelligently, to acknowledge a prohibition on what Duchamp called “Cartesianism,” a method of reasoning from innate ideas and first principles, leading to real truths about the real world.8 But unlike Duchamp’s spectacular leveraging of language as space and time, Harrison’s titling (along with her appropriation) is more casual, more familiar, more willing to be demoralized by contemporary reality and/or direct about it, and therefore more social, if not overtly political. It may even be that her versioning of the category of kitsch aims at solving Greenberg’s quandary, reactivating the “and” in the title of his 1939 essay to read not “versus” but “as.”

 

THE ACT OF LOOKING

If Harrison is a painter, a shopper (or collector), and, as I would argue, a skillful writer, then she is a photographer, too. Given the ubiquity of images online and the pursuant erasure of medial distinctions, along with the variety of strategies used by those who now identify as photographers, perhaps it is less important to emphasize the act of “taking” a photo than it is to note the act of situating—framing or, as Harrison’s structures can seem to do, enfolding, grasping—and circulating one. In any case, Harrison is sometimes the active camerawoman, as, possibly, for 20 × 24″ (for CDL) and as for her 2001 installation, Perth Amboy, for which she photographed individuals who had come to view an image of the Virgin Mary that had appeared on the glass of a window in a private home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Harrison often hangs framed images of celebrities on her polystyrene steles or builds pictures and video into a given piece. Perth Amboy, however, sets photograph and sculpture apart, in part by means of a cardboard maze. The twenty-one photographs in Perth Amboy, many taken from outside the house to capture views of hands on the blessed window, hang on the gallery walls. At the center of the room, tall pieces of cardboard are arranged and folded in such a way that they stand freely, swaying sometimes. They might well be knocked over by visitors. (“Don’t worry,” the artist seems to be saying, “it’s not like it’s going shatter.”) In the maze, Harrison sets up encounters between essentializing toys, tchotchkes, and figurines—Barbie’s “friend” Becky, who uses a wheelchair; a ceramic “Asian” figure; a “Native American” head—and tiny works of art. The anthropomorphic items are arranged in such a way that they seem to gaze appreciatively and obediently at their assigned objects of contemplation, miniature sculptures and paintings. Thus, Harrison, as an artist who is often engaged in staging occasions for looking at photographs, calls our attention to the fact that photographs can be framed by objects and elaborate physical structures, and can frame those objects and structures, in turn. Her use of photography, much like her use of other figurative modes, is ambivalent, a switching station for the currents of meaning that flow through her constructions, reversing direction and colliding from time to time—avoiding realism’s one-way street, while at the same time addressing the fact that viewers are often conditioned to seek realist representation.9

Perth Amboy has appeared in a number of institutional settings; like many of Harrison’s installations, it is intended to be meaningfully iterated, changing form depending on its context.10 It is among the most generous of Harrison’s creations. When Perth Amboy was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016, I took a group of undergraduate writing students to see it, and I have seldom experienced such a strong collective response to a museum visit: the students were enthralled by the photographs of pilgrims’ hands and faces. They also lingered in the cardboard maze, making notes on the various readymades staged there. The students considered these scenes of fake absorption intently. They weighed the feeling of the looking described here against the looking they themselves were doing in relation to the miraculous site of Perth Amboy, where, as they understood, devout people had congregated to touch a holy image. They told me that they enjoyed the way in which the cardboard kept some parts of the room hidden, such that one could not grasp its contents in a single glance. The installation seemed, in some way, to liberate them to be completely focused on their own thoughts and observations. It was also acting, therefore, as a consideration of a possible relationship between privacy and collectivity, two concepts that are usually opposed. The installation seemed to pose a question about the location of the so-called mass ornament: Is it with “them” (the visitors to a miraculous image of the Virgin), or with “us,” we who ponder unpleasant miniatures that in turn ponder bad art? In other words, is the face of Mary kitsch or is the image of museum spectatorship kitsch—or, are these two images and the behaviors they entail actually more allied than we might think?

 

EXHIBITION MAKERS

Given that, as of the writing of this essay, I have not yet seen “Life Hack,” Harrison’s fall 2019 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and as the uncorrected proof of the accompanying catalogue contains no clear exhibition checklist nor any installation shots—focusing instead on images of past shows and mostly literary essays about Harrison—I cannot offer a sense of what the experience of moving through this exhibition will be like. I do, however, find it interesting that the Whitney is the site of this major consolidation of Harrison’s efforts.

Visitors to the museum’s home in Chelsea may be forgiven for not recognizing in this deluxe incarnation the institution’s scrappy beginnings, in the late nineteen-teens, as the Whitney Studio Club, an experimental downtown exhibition space that encouraged collaboration among American artists. The Club was overseen by Juliana Force, then personal assistant to heiress and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a somewhat distant patron whose greatest previous achievement was to have backed the 1913 Armory Show. When, in 1931, the Whitney became a full-fledged museum, Force lived above its West Eighth Street entrance in an apartment whose bizarrely eclectic appointments (folk art, Victoriana, contemporary American paintings, a red lacquered elevator, fur carpeting, “a white rubber floor with brass inlay, black furniture inlaid with mother of pearl engravings, a large Bakelite table, opalescent wallpaper, blue satin draperies with pearl fringe, doors decorated with trompe l’oeil designs and rococo patterns offset by lace paper appliqué jambs, gilded eagle lamps that hung from the ceiling on silk cords, and an alabaster cat perched on a sofa”11) might have been to Harrison’s own liking. The Whitney Museum, carrying on the work of the Studio Club, did not draw a sharp distinction between decoration and artwork, craft and fine art, kitsch and sublimity, artist and curator. The intended experience was of a multifarious aesthetic space, rather than, as in Greenberg’s conception of the modern art gallery, of recessive surrounds for formal canvases discussing their own display. Force treated art in a familiar fashion and was generally more concerned with inviting living artists and other visitors to the spaces she maintained than with maintaining Neo-Classical or modernist ideals.12

The Whitney has since changed quite a lot, deaccessioning, after Force’s death in 1948 and over the intervening seventy-plus years, a number of no doubt excessively kitschy American artworks acquired before the Second World War along with any and all pre-1900 objects, to become an impeccable modern and now postmodern institution. But Harrison has never been the sort of artist to miss an opportunity to point out the strange conditions (historical, social, material) under which we view art, and this makes me wonder. The current catalogue concludes with a “Curators’ Acknowledgements” section by Elisabeth Sussman and David Joselit, which names without describing an “ambitious, unique, and incisive plan for this exhibition,” calling it additionally “utterly reflective of Rachel’s vision.”13 Reading that gnomic sentence, I begin imagining for a moment another pink arrow, à la Moore to the Point, this one some twelve stories tall, perhaps aimed at Hudson Yards, the Vessel, or the museum itself. But I feel unsatisfied by this fantasy intervention, which could only be titled More of the Same, and would have little of the capacity to astonish that I associate with Harrison’s work, save in its monumentality, which, again, would not be very Harrison at all. But what if there is a way in which hosting Harrison brings back some of the emphasis on so-called minor styles that are in fact key to the Whitney’s original reason for being? Or, what if the show simply calls greater attention to our habits of moving around and looking while we are in the current Whitney? Indeed, this second option feels quite possible to me. As most of us know, one of the most disorienting experiences one can have in a museum is to make a ground-figure category error, in other words to mistake infrastructure or trash—say a directional sign or stray packing peanut—for art.

 

LUCY IVES is a writer who lives in Vermont. Her most recent novel is Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World.

This article appears under the title “Insert Awe Somewhere” in the November 2019 issue, pp. 46–55.