Rachel Harrison: The Look of Dress-Separates; Greene Naftali, New York, New York
by Devon Dikeou
After meandering through the fluorescently lit halls of 526 West 26th Street to finally emerge at Greene Naftali for the one person exhibition of Rachel Harrison, one encounters a peach wall blocking the entrance of the gallery with a magnetic sign board, seemingly having been lifted from an abandoned hospital. Through inspection (and/or the checklist), the viewer ascertains that the piece is entitled fegs (federal employment guidance service), and the tone is set for the inquisitive, wry treatment that Rachel Harrison achieves in her work. While most artists seemingly come up short when attempting to cross the barriers between photography, installation, picture making, and object making, Harrison not only gets it, but manages to make the embrace meaningful and memorable.
Scooting behind the employment menu from some antiquated government bureau, the single clean studded and painted wall gives way to the roughed-out construction revealing an L-shape set of walls (rather than a free standing uniwall), using materials normally associated with the artist's previous installations. This construction is adorned with a gigantic orange headless woman/goddess carved out of Styrofoam. In front of this rests a melange of wood bunches, metal studs, an Evian box, lime green sacks of some type of heavy material, tied and cantilevered with a complex entanglement of orange electric utility cords, and lastly, a boom box emanates some type of soundtrack. It seems to be from an episode of GH (General Hospital for those not cognizant of the daytime soap lexicon), as Monica, a doctor and seminal character of the show, seems to be having an argument (presumably with Allan, her long standing husband), who speaks the words "You don't come out smelling like a rose." The point here is not the quote's source, but rather, its relation to the narrative notion of the show, and the installation in particular. Information is given out piecemeal, and the associations are meant to allow the viewer to construct their own narrative in the work. The devious placement and precarious feeling in the work resists the definitive formation of the narrative (a parallel to the real event) leaving the viewer with the idea of content, rather than content itself.
Entitled snake in the grass, this first installation meanders through the more narrow entrance area of the gallery, pushing the viewer along, as in megalithic museum shows, from little room/tableau to the next. But even that contrast is further attenuated by the materials and the photographs in the installation. Six photographs of grass developed at apparently different exposures, but perhaps just exposed to the sun for different amounts of time, line a thin shelf of another L-shaped wall, which is revealed to be part of a megalithic series of hanging walls weighted and supported by the same orange cords and green bags. At any moment one of these walls might bob into the viewer, or even fall. Such gibberish movement contrasts further with the attention to other photographs in the installation, which are placed on various sides of the hanging maze; headless suburbanites on the side of "anywhere cul-de-sac." One of the real treats in snake in the grass is the actual snake. What appears to be the remains of a real life anaconda (perhaps the very same one resurrected by the fearless Ice Cube in a recent Hollywood production) rests somehow in its own spiral jetty on top of, yes, the head of a green snow shovel.
The maze continues, and what follow are more photos, more sand, more objects. One of the last walls fronts a huge bank of windows with "a view to die for," one that could overwhelm an artist. But here Harrison usefully employs its scale, beauty, and functionality, by placing her last of a series of grass photos--the only grass photo of historical note, that of the "grassy knoll"--against the New York skyline. In the photo, one sees the moment after the assassination--the remains of our national tragedy sprawled on the grass. And as if further iconization is needed, this particular relic is itself merely a photo of a photo, for sale for $20.00 (in actuality, an edition of 10 for $800 each). Set in front of the view of our present reality, our past is laid out, literally mapping the deepest villain and the snake we still can't identify--the assassin's bullet--with the snake of New York City.
Finally, the viewer comes upon a cookie tray on the floor, which holds the remains of discarded olive pits. These pits put an end to the maze, the detritus of consumption made abject in the literal form of at best a salubrious snack, at worst, the heart or remains of the once greasy, now dead and dried snake. But we are not finished yet, not with Harrison, for she has just begun, and even in this piece we are left with one last word, gesture, or afterthought which ties the whole installation to the remaining objects and pieces in the show. Having literally snaked our way through the tight installation, the room opens up into a bevy of objects that seems to begin with a tiny photo of a man holding a souvenir postcard of a birds-eye view of the Kennedy Motorcade, all of which is irregularly framed and topped with a wrapped Mi Cubano cigar--allusionally pointing to the cuban missile crisis. This last segue of the installation is literally topped off by a protrusion from above, as a section of drywall flags out from the wall perpendicularly, and divides the show from installation to object, from unfinish to finish.
In this second object area, one is immediately drawn to a series of object wall shelves. On some type of door-like structure leaning against the wall, the artist has modeled out of paper maché a rock-like structure--all this painted beige--and amidst the rock sits what seems to be yet another found photograph, faded with age so that it is not clear if it has been hand colored or just lost its color. The rock-framed photo is of a freeway with an old truck cruising the byways, and of course, the road is flanked by the grassy combines of Lady Bird Johnson's own wildflower native grass crusade, something so wonderfully and innocently different from the present day First Lady crusades, or the gruesome remains seen in the Kennedy grass, previously viewed.
In the middle of the wall, a piece houses numerous cans of olives with photos of John and Bo Derek (where's Linda?). The olive cans are ordered according to the number of olives appearing on each can's label, counting backwards from left to right. Titled teaching bo to count backwards, the shelf itself--made out of a prefabricated rain gutter, slickly painted white--alludes further into the world of "Mike Brady architecture" and housing tracts, already so trademark Harrison, while the title seems to consider John Derek's obsession with younger and younger women the older he gets. Almost as commentary to John and Bo Derek, the piece next to it, burning bush, is in some ways the most anachronistic work in the show. But with the thoughtful placement, the weirdly quirky context reinforces the kind of commentary surrounding responsibility. The piece is made out of soft pink Styrofoam which has been first penciled, then carved with"Mark me and mark me well. I will not let you come here and whore your way out of taking responsibility for the damage you have done." This is spattered with a smidgen of green paint, which emphasizes its forlorn neglect quality--the wife that was left, so to speak--Ms. Evans' revenge.
Moving fully into the show, one sees the simplest gesture, a photo/object made out of a poster stuck to the wall only by its top. Depicting some obscure, but green and vaguely foreign landscape atop a wall (maybe the Great Wall, ascertained only after consulting the checklist), the artist has stuck another "urban anywhere" photograph. This one, placed in the upper left corner of the poster, is a 4" x 6" image of a red brick wall, metal door, industrial outlet, and an air conditioner, which has leaked water and fluid over the years, creating a patina of white tracks from its height all the way down the red brick to the bottom of the found photo. What makes this piece so good is not the obvious juxtapositions--urban/nature, gigantic/miniature, individual/mass produced--but rather the subtlety in the seasonal. The urban photo looks to be winter, as no secretions seem to be emanating from the air conditioner--there is only evidence of its past residues. While clearly, the deciduous green is in its top formation, typical of the humid summer months. This sets up the waterfall metaphor and linkage echo that relates the gesture and images so profoundly.
Pushing the work back into the realm of installation, Harrison has included a piece that interacts with other individual pieces, and physically brings the show "The Look of Dress-Separates" towards its nominal conclusion: intermingling of her facile comprehension of installation, photographs, and objects all within their own narrative of past and present, with issues of design, style, architecture, and materials.
In horse heath, Harrison has included a framed letter regarding an artist's edition for Mary Lou Proctor by the artist Sandra Rubliss from 1986. Described and notarized, the edition in question describes an artwork that includes artichoke leaves, flax, foam core, linen, cotton muslin, mylar, grommets, metallic cloth. Directly below and to the right, swings a roll of thick black nylon cord, a tail of which reaches up, attaches to the wall, and stretches to the ceiling thirty feet away.
Harrison has put another one of her contraptions--an architectural object piece, boise cascade--on two pieces of plywood held together by large metallic wood clamps. Strategically placed, this piece hides--along with an architectural column--what weights, and what awaits, the black cord. On boise cascade, again, we make our way back to youth, the photo represents young men at a party imbibing and eating, and of course, with any party pictures that one gets back, everyone has red eye. Off centered in its yellow matting, the photo is accompanied by a bath towel hook installed above, which seems to be begging for someone to cover up this photo record with the obligatory towel. Or, as it is a two arm bath hook, it equally begs the question: which way will things go for the two fellows recorded? Do they know each other, or are they just celebration acquaintances? Are they friends, perhaps they are together; what's the relationship of either to the artist? A myriad of tangential questions, etc. Youth and anonymity.
Turning to the other side of the piece, one sees that the raw wood has been painted hospital green and the frame, featured on the backside this time, shows a chicken being butchered. Scale and balance is in question with this large matte and small photo. This formal relationship is further reiterated through the subject matter of death via butchering, and the use of the institutional green in hospitals intones endings. While eating something supposedly refreshing to the body is sustained and emphasized literally through the chicken, the real life/death vigor of the animal chain contrasts with the sign, literally the green, now cabbage-like background that has become the vegetable: lowest common denominator of the animal chain/sexual chain hierarchy.
It comes down to rawness/frame. Harrison's control of installation (raw) has certainly proven itself over the years, but her mastery of the object (frame) is even more profound given the shortcomings of so many before her, including the works Cady Noland and Jessica Stockholder exhibited upon moving to a new "house." And the courage to mix the two, installation (raw) and object (frame), is also admirable. Maybe the two are perfectly merged by the protruding drywall of snake in the grass, a raw extension of the existing architecture (unpainted sheetrock) that frames the rest of the installation. It pulls the viewer back from the world of frame to the world of raw and back . . . back to that taut black nylon cord and what's on the other end--a Harrison super collage of Sandra Rubliss' unique edition, "Horse Heath." The object, matte board, artichoke leaf, dirt, grommets, braided metal, cotton muslin, all stuffed in and falling out of a green metallic nylon tank top. A perfectly weighted, perfectly scaled '90s version of "Dress Separates." And the "look," somewhere like Dan Graham meets John Waters.
New York, New York