Rachel Harrison's combination of photography and sculptural objects results in a profoundly unsettling perceptual confusion. Grouped together under the title 'Seven Sculptures', the objects that made up this exhibition rely as much on the difference between the ready-made and the handcrafted as on the difference between two and three dimensions. In each case the shifts of perspective were equally dizzying.
The seven objects are domestic in scale: the size of a low coffee table, a window frame, a packing box, a Xerox machine. Marlon and Indian (2002), the first sculpture encountered on entering the space, employs such a coffee table in its construction. It is perched at an angle on another lower table, with an abstract form made up of perpendicular planes in various sizes on its surface; an architectural model, judging by its size in relation to the table-top, or a model for a larger public sculpture. The construction is coated with a creamy white medium, minimizing the junctures between the three components and concealing their materials and means of construction. The harmony of the whole is fractured, however, by two additional elements: a snapshot of Marlon Brando visible in an open drawer and, on the other side, a small plastic figurine of a Native American chief, arms folded, facing the abstract 'model'. Any Formalist appreciation is flipped as a figurative aspect is introduced and a narrative relationship opens up between the inanimate object and the characters, between Marlon and the Native American. Scale is telescoped, the viewer's height exaggerated by the photograph low down in the drawer, while the 'model' acquires the same human dimensions as the miniature chief. The search for meaning is doubled back: by the photograph in which Brando's stare, taken from a TV screen, meets that of the viewer head on and also by the Native American, whose rigid stance reflects the viewer's own.
In Wardrobe (2002) a figurine of a blonde tourist peers at an irregular lumpy mound, painted lurid green, as if to encourage its interpretation as a representation of 'nature'. An upturned cardboard box is attached to the wall to form a pedestal, stamped with the company logo 'Mayflower Transit'. Could this figurine represent the first English pilgrims who sailed to America aboard the trusty ship Mayflower? In a crude reversal we have the new colonialist attempting to make sense of the nature she is faced with, while the Native American ponders civilization's Modernist edifices. But as each figurine stands with its back to us in a pose of concentration, it is just as much a mockery of the contemporary art audience, searching for meaning in organic or abstract forms.
Harrison works with both approximations of hard-edged abstraction (albeit cobbled together from found materials without the aid of a spirit level) and voluptuous modelled forms. Both have a temporary feeling, highlighted in works such as Day's Grape (2002), a towering mound of protrusions painted silver and mounted on a dolly, ready to roll away at any moment, while a crate of soda cans balances precariously at its summit. Whereas a rough craftsmanship was crucial to the aesthetic of many of her previous works, here it is concealed by the layer of uniform colour with which all but two of the sculptures are coated. The only materials left visible, a cardboard box and some scraps of pink foam insulating material, do nothing to establish a sense of stability. Higher Ground (2001), a mid-blue structure, riffs on the subtle interplay of planes and angles like a home-made wooden rendition of an early Caro painted piece. But here again the question of modes of perception is abruptly foregrounded by a photograph attached to the work's surface, showing the window of a suburban American weatherboarded house. Any hopes of a look inside the house are frustrated by a combination of distracting reflections and an arm stretched out across the pane of glass, blocking the view in all directions. The window has no depth here; it is merely an architectural element, its surface obstructed and as blank as the flat colours coating the sculptures.
Harrison's work is full of such teasing mechanisms - windows that show you nothing and screenshots of faces that return your stare; unconnected cultural or historical characters; random everyday objects left lying around (keys, matches, an iron); tantalizing titles that lead you on obscure paths and provoke home-spun analogies or hokey conclusions. These blocking devices and tricks encourage an accumulation of subsidiary information with which to construct a meaning, however temporary and makeshift it may be.
First published in Issue 68