In Legendary Red, a box of Rice Chex has been shoehorned between bright red folds in a drapey, textured mass made from polystyrene, cement, and wire. This sculpture consists of striking vertical lines and angles found in the crate on the floor that serves as a pedestal and a flat, brick-like crown that appears to be barely attached to the top. In between, the organic form is tucked and gathered around the cereal box, which bears the glowing, grinning image of John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, dressed in Christmas red. This is the red sculpture, one of four new sculptures by Rachel Harrison that follow a primary palette and a visual balance between hard lines and soft edges. They command with a formalist presence that connects highly educated theory with common, found material.
Other critics and observers have tagged Harrison’s work as full of non sequiturs, spurning objects for non thought, subversive, witty, and open-ended. Her work has often been shelved with other unclassifiables, belonging to the neo-Dada, and with multiple references to Napoleon. I found myself feeling scrambled upon my second viewing, as if Assorted Varieties was tempting me toward literalism, towards reading shapes in clouds. Here were sculptures and prints that celebrated content, the churning, cloying, persistent noise we have adapted to, yet each work presented so naked in its own materiality that it became impossible to distinguish exactly where the high artistic theory flowed into the musings of a passionate consumer. This is also among the most observed quality of Harrison’s shows—the sculptures invite a conversation between high and low. The pieces draw upon references from a larger context like, as Johanna Burton described in Inappropriation: A Short Story, “valences that attach themselves to those objects.”
The tension throughout the show is in our preoccupation with reductionism. Her work seems to draw from a vast roundup of related events and to cram, shove, balance and perch the distilled icon atop elementary, malformed pedestals. It seems at least clear that Harrison maintains a dialogue with the greater questions of identity and belief in an interconnected age, a criticism held for the twinning of personal brand and values.
Each sculpture contains a unique element of precarity, a moment of near imbalance and shadily secure quick-fixes. The sand bag at the base of Standard Blue is painted to match the undulating form above, to become a camouflage form of support. The form is a conglomerate of shapes and open spaces the kinds of which can only be created by tacking together materials which do not belong in proximity. Balanced on a slanted ledge, Harrison has shoved an unopened MyPillow to face out to the crowd, just above an average eye level. Standard Blue feels deeply engaged with formal elements, such as texture, hue, and size. Yet the object thwarts a classic sculptural interpretation of the piece. Her decision to include a divisive (and rather absurd) cultural figure lands in the same category of the Chex box in Legendary Red. Whatever ideas Harrison is toying with in her sculptures, she has made a series of wise selections regarding public figures. It is difficult to imagine the image of someone more infamous or anonymous taking the place of the pillow guy and the Legends. Too much would be too obvious.
Around the corner in the back room of the gallery, the final sculpture consists of three integral pedestals that prop a mass of colorized cement. The patterns around each block differ enough to jerk the viewer out of synergistic interpretation, away from a sense of harmony. It is not until one walks around the sculpture that the whole image is revealed. Recessed in the hallow cube at the top is a kind of shadowbox containing a printed image of Mario Batali Pasta Sauce, the assorted varieties advertised for $5.50 each. A copper iPod nano, circa 2009, rests on the floor of the shrine.
An anecdote: after seeing the show, I had a talk with an artist friend of mine about our respective experiences in the gallery. As she contemplated the Batali box, overheard a gallery-goer say, “Mario Batali. Doesn’t she know what he did?” Of course Harrison knows. One never gets used to the feeling that Harrison knows (what we don’t) while walking through the gallery. As self-appointed interpreters of fine contemporary art, it is responsible to avoid incorporating too much of the larger cultural ethos into construal text and conversation. But this feels like a goad from Harrison. This is an invitation to succumb to the easy pitfalls of juicy news, celebrity drama, and public pain. In 2012, Mario Batali was long established as a household name for those who followed fine-dining-turned-weeknight-dinner mainstream food culture. It was also the year Batali was first accused of sexual misconduct, at least according to public record. Today, in 2021, the first result on Google for “Mario Batali” is the litany of sexual misconduct allegations that have eclipsed his culinary career. The sauce in the image is a symbolic reduction of the man who once charmed Americans with his simple, jovial approach to food, his orange Crocs, and his perceived relatability. Today, Batali’s private persona has disemboweled his public image. Given the context Harrison has planted in the other sculptures—the Legends (attacked for being tone-deaf on Twitter) and Mike Lindell (inflammatory right-wing conspiracist)—it feels increasingly like she is tempting us to let the anxiety-ridden braid between culture and fine art invade Assorted Varieties until the message is so entangled in both adroit ivory tower formalism and nods to a gutted society that we become overwhelmed.
If then Harrison is engaged in these prods toward a more cultural conversation, can her work (or at least the sculptures in Assorted Varieties) still be classified as formalism? We may be entering a feedback loop in the art world where classifying terms such as this are becoming obfuscated by art history, technology, and reframes. But Harrison seems to embrace this paradox, the one that states there is nothing new in the art world as the art world continues to reinvent old conversations.
There seems to be an inside joke hanging over the gallery that sometimes touches the work and reveals a key to Harrison’s thought process.
“This was the original academic article which introduced Joan’s hypothesis about the meaning of the frieze and ignited a firestorm of controversy.”
“Beautiful review in the TBR.”
“This is the review that I found so shockingly patronizing—TB.”
This dialogue comes from the framed flatwork A Firestorm on the wall, which takes the form of three Post-It notes lined up side by side. In this brief display, we are perhaps closest to a glimpse of Harrison’s thesis: A work of art born out of controversy, and out of that art, controversy was born again. I missed this work the first time I saw the show, and I know, if I went again, I would encounter something else I missed on my second viewing. If you see the show before it closes on January 8th, try to go when the gallery is empty. It is not so much that Rachel Harrison’s work demands silent attention, but you probably do not want to startle your neighbor when, in front of one of Harrison’s sculptures or drawings, you finally get the joke.