Trash-stalking with Rachel Harrison

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Trash-stalking with Rachel Harrison
Installation view of “Rachel Harrison Life Hack,” a midcareer survey of the artist’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Nov. 4, 2019. Many of Harrison's assemblage-style sculptures suggest the kind of accidental urban still lifes you see on New York City sidewalks on trash collection day. Charlie Rubin/The New York Times.

by Holland Cotter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- On a recent Saturday there was strong foot traffic on the fifth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art where New York artist Rachel Harrison’s exuberant midcareer survey is installed. And the traffic wasn’t moving fast. Visitors were spending time with sculpture that, despite — or because of — its enigmatic zaniness, inspired a slow look. And people seemed to be having fun looking, even if they weren’t exactly sure why.

Maybe it was because puzzlement can be fun, and Harrison has set it as one of the tasks for her work. Many of her assemblage-style sculptures suggest the kind of accidental urban still lifes you see on New York City sidewalks on trash collection day: bottles, bedding, defunct appliances, outgrown toys, discarded Christmas trees in season and, always, sealed garbage bags filled with you don’t want to know what. All of these together, once you start to look, translate into information about commerce, class, value, accident, appetite, waste, color, shape, zeitgeist — even life and death. There’s material there for stories, many. But you have to write them.

Harrison has photographed such arrays in the past and inserted the pictures in her sculpture, though the earliest piece in her current exhibition, “Rachel Harrison Life Hack,” a career survey covering some 25 years, looks like the unsavory something that the inside of a garbage bag might yield.

That piece is titled “Dinner” and is — or once was — just that. One night in 1991, the artist ordered a meal in an East Village restaurant downstairs from a gallery where she was in a group show. When her food arrived — shish kebab, salad, cheesecake — she divided it into Ziploc bags, which she took upstairs and tacked to the gallery wall as her contribution. A few days later she transferred the now-rotting food to glass jars, which remain sealed to this day and are displayed on a small shelf just inside the entrance to the Whitney show.

You can slot “Dinner” into various categories: as conceptual art, as a species of organic abstraction, as the souvenir of a career event, or as a relic of a lost place and time. In the end, it can only be securely defined by what it does: It catches your eye, pulls you in close, makes you struggle for meaning, and leaves you not knowing what to think.

The same might be said of a roomsize installation from 1996 with a block-of-type title that amounts to an object in itself: “Should home windows or shutters be required to withstand a direct hit from an 8-foot-long two-by-four shot from a cannon at 34 miles an hour, without creating a hole big enough to let through a 3-inch sphere?”

In its original form, the work, which has been recreated for the Whitney survey, was set up in a Brooklyn brownstone parlor and made up the entire content of Harrison’s first solo gallery show. There it created a room within the room through artificial, stage-flat “walls,” a theatrical device Harrison would repeatedly return to. At the Whitney, where surviving components of the original installation are included in the reconstruction, the layering is not just of space but of time, present and past.

So in a sense the work is another reliquary. And even when new, the piece had time-capsule features. Its title was lifted from a 1995 New York Times article written in the wake of an apocalypse-strength Hurricane Andrew. The “walls” are hung, now as then, with framed photos, taken by the artist, of trash bags waiting for pickup. And here and there we find colorfully labeled cans of supermarket peas (do the brands still exist, or are the cans archival?) stacked in corners or perched on shelves made in part from what look like stiffened socks.

Faced, without explanation, with such idiosyncratic elements, our organizational instinct, our default to logic, kicks in. We start to construct a narrative. So: flimsy walls, a report of damages from a storm, piled-up trash bags, a stash of canned food. Suddenly there’s tension, drama, a hint of darkness. But one look at the work’s wackier features pulls us in another direction, and we’re back with bemusement.

Again, this push-pull is a driving dynamic of this artist’s work. It withholds fixed meanings while suggesting that meanings exist. It works hard to elicit reactions, potentially strong ones, without determining what the reactions should be. You feel things will come clear if you hang out and keep looking. And people do.

Career surveys are usually arranged chronologically so as to suggest an artist’s development. The organizers of this show — Elisabeth Sussman, curator of photography at the Whitney; David Joselit, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York; and Kelly Long, a curatorial assistant at the Whitney — honor that convention, but only so far: They put early work, from the 1990s, in the opening gallery, but beyond that mix things up.

In general the work tends to grow more “sculptural” — in the sense of more concentrated, unitary, handmade — as time goes on. One example is “Alexander the Great” (2007), in which a nude, prepubescent department store mannequin, wearing an Abraham Lincoln mask on the back of its head, stands atop an abstract expressionist-patterned meteorite. Another is the scary “Brownie” (2005), a kind of Giacomettian column embedded with life-size skulls, drizzled with paint and topped with a silver wig.

The show’s inventories of sculptural ingredients can become quite elaborate. “Huffy Howler” (2004) includes sheepskin, foxtails, brick-filled tote bags and a studio shot of Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” attached to the brand-name bike of the title. “Nice Rack” (2006), with a found Hallmark-greeting-card rack, brings together costume jewelry, fake fruit, an ergonomic snow shovel and a photographed portrait of an imperious Ronald Reagan.

One look at the Reagan image has you scrambling for a political message. As far as I can tell, there’s no hard message to be found, but in suggesting there might be, the work has done its job. It has made us look, with a synthesizing eye, at every detail, and then, thwarted but living in hope, look again.

Although Harrison is not credited as a curator, she is largely responsible for the show’s distinctive look. It was her idea to have the floor of the big central gallery covered with black-painted plywood and marked with maplike lines drawn in chalk. The design was inspired by the minimalist studio set used in Lars von Trier’s 2004 film, “Dogville,” and whatever its significance may hold for the artist or for us, it provides a persuasive setting for sculpture, allowing each piece, like a character in a film, to retain its personality while clearly participating in a collective story.

And it was her idea, in the show’s final gallery, to turn 15 extraordinarily inventive sculptures into a multivocal ensemble by corralling them together within a circle of outward-facing metal chairs, on which visitors are invited to sit.

It might have made more logical sense, in the interest of contemplative looking, to have had the chairs face inward toward the art. But destabilizing logic is what the show — which includes a set of drawings of singer Amy Winehouse as an avenging angel of art history — is ultimately about. (Looking at art is often pitched as a learning experience; Harrison makes it an unlearning experience.)

Oh, and I’ve learned that “life hack” is internetese for myriad improvised tricks or techniques devised to make the practical crises of daily existence — how to remove ketchup stains from a shirt, how to relax with strangers — more manageable. No doubt some of these interventions work better than others, but the fact that they’re a popular phenomenon, a thing, suggests that a lot of us are looking around, seeing chaos and trying, with whatever panache we can muster, to make it productive. Harrison’s art is really good at that.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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