Rachel Harrison Prasineby Jane Cavalier
Greene Naftali | April 28 – June 17, 2017
Deciphering Rachel Harrison’s sculptures is like playing charades, except that in Harrison’s version of the game, there’s never one answer. Her sculptures pantomime the failure of discourse to fully wrap words around art. Establishing a halo of competing references around each work, Harrison lets the art seep out in spectacularly unwieldy, ungainly, and unspeakable forms. For her latest exhibition, Prasine, Harrison combines and enacts contrasting visual strategies—whether Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, or sculpture and photography—to exacerbate the cracks and fissures between these paradigms and create space for new modes of looking.
Take Bears Ears (2017), for example, a purple, green, and orange sculpture that overflows from a lime-colored cart at the entrance of the gallery. The sculptural mass is amalgamous and shape-shifting, like writhing bodies beneath a thick, technicolor coat of paint. Awash in swirling colors that look more like icing than paint, her sculptures revel in the tension between the surface and the forms it masks. Reiterating this play between the seen and the unseen, Harrison has stuck a thumb drive into the sculpture that the exhibition checklist tells us holds thirty-eight Harun Farocki films. But what to make of the soccer ball that rests atop the sculpture? And of the work’s title, which bears the name of a monument in Utah that under Trump’s reign may be de-monumentalized and turned over to oil and gas companies in the latest breach of Indian sovereignty? Harrison builds uncertainty into the conceptual fabric of her work, and invites us to play a game of speculative viewing. At the same time, her flamboyant use of visual shorthand, like the thumb drive standing in for Farocki’s oeuvre, dramatizes the space between object and description to compel us to question how our assumptions shape our perceptions of reality.
Harrison’s sculptures mine the pitfalls of representation by helping us to imagine what it leaves out. In Sculpture with Boots (2017), Harrison hangs a photograph of Lee Krasner’s painting boots on a spiraling mass of concrete, which transitions in the round from a neat grid of colored squares into a deliciously sloppy display of Abstract Expressionism run amok. The unwieldy dynamism and enormous scale of the sculpture, in combination with its frenzied application of thick coats of paint, amounts to a tribute to all of the action, intensity, and ideology with which Krasner approached her work. The lumbering sculpture almost overtakes the photograph from behind, haunting the image with traces of what it necessarily excludes.
As Harrison pries open the chasm between reality and representation, a slapstick sensibility permeates her work. In Every Sculpture Needs a Trap Door (2017), named for one of Harrison’s artistic tenets, she pairs a gold-and-silver-painted sculpture with a box of push pins and a stained copy of Andrea Fraser’s essay, “Why Does Fred Sandback’s Work Make Me Cry?” Suggesting the possibility of pinning the essay onto the sculpture, as in a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, Harrison lures viewers into reading her work through the lens of Fraser’s essay, which explores the ways art depends on discourse to recognize it as art. At the same time, she embeds a gag device in the sculpture: an upside-down head nimbly camouflaged into the abstract composition. Throwing the dog a bone, she rewards close looking. The trap door, we learn, is like the upside-down head— it’s the place where discourse fails and art persists. In this détournement of logic, she invites us to consider what art might look like if art were opaque to, or even beyond explanation.
The brilliant irony of this exhibition is that while Harrison’s work performs the failures of discourse, she uses the press release to cast her sculptures alongside famous works of art in a play on the undoing of style. Canonical objects voice competing ideologies and dissolve into a chorus of dissonance, non-sequiturs, and contradiction. As in her sculptures, Harrison combines and provokes contrasting ideas in order to trace the pitfalls between them. Diving deep into the chasm between reality and representation, her exhibition invites viewers to revel in these spaces of illegibility. “Make art history scream,” Judith Beheading Holofernes proclaims in the script, a footnoted quotation of a report on C.I.A. Activities in Chile, in which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger advised, “Make the economy scream.” Like the pink cord Harrison extends through the center of the gallery, flamboyantly inviting viewers to trip over it, her work traces the fault lines of power that connect art, politics, and representation.
JANE CAVALIER is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.