No Man's Land

Rachel Harrison's current show ambivalently memorializes sculpture—and men

The best of Rachel Harrison's smartly snarky, heavily attitudinal, sometimes traditional-looking new free-standing sculptural amalgamations—some of which sport stuffed chickens and diet drinks—look as if Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson, and John Chamberlain made sculptures together and had Renoir and Hans Hoffmann paint them while Jessica Stockholder, Isa Genzken, and Franz West kibitzed. As you circumnavigate her angular cubistic twists and craggy abstract caryatids and columns you get reverberations of these artists as well as histories and -isms gone-by.

Harrison takes a lot of chances in her art. As a result, her work often produces only mild surprise, looks cruddy, or comes off like a sight gag. This happens in her current show with pieces like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Johnny Depp, and Pasquale Paoli—the last of which looks like a cross between Christo and Joseph Beuys. Harrison spices up her influences, however, with elements of the news, biography, mythology, and monuments to the dead in ways that feel vivacious, visionary, comic, slightly mad, and pointedly political.

Her current work is particularly prickly when it comes to the subject of men. This hits you before you even walk in the door. Harrison's exhibition is sarcastically titled after O.J.'s un-televised confessional special, If I Did It—as if to say, "Only a man who's a probable murderer could come up with such a cocky title." Here, Harrison, who at 41 has slowly become one of the better makers of walk-around sculpture working today, bitch-slaps Simpson and at the same time implicates herself in some crime. In this case, she's immersing herself in two forms in apparent crisis—men and autonomous sculpture.

Two-faced: Harrison's Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Courtesy the Greene Naftali Gallery
Two-faced: Harrison's Rainer Werner Fassbinder

The exhibition consists of 10 poly- or monochrome monoliths or sculptural clumps. Each looks like a papier-mâché stalagmite with found objects attached, and is named after a famous male. There's Amerigo Vespucci,covered in psychedelic measles; John Locke,who wrote about "combining several simple ideas into one compound," which is a good description of what Harrison is doing; Johnny Depp, whose comment "America is a broken toy" fits the work named after him; Alexander the Great, a boat shape with a male mannequin standing on it; and Al Gore, a bulky rectangular pylon that looks like a mottled Monet painting.

Each Harrison sculpture functions like an abstract rebus. The thermostat on Al Gorenot only makes you think about his signature issue but also about what the temperature might be of his future, as well as the sculpture's. The half-eaten apple on Amerigo Vespucciconjures thoughts of paradise and loss, and again the state of sculpture itself—as if sculpture has been cast out of the garden of contemporary art. Atop Tiger Woodsis a can of something called "Lite Green Tea and Lemonade," a drink invented by golfer Arnold Palmer, that just makes you think about how bizarre taste is.

The main gallery is over-installed. Yet the room still transforms into a kind of sculptural graveyard. Harrison's isolated works turn into zombies, ghosts, and surrogate figures. Together they're like some mummified Greek chorus or a walk-in version of Raphael's The School of Athens in which a silent dialog between the dead and the living is taking place—a good metaphor for what it is to look at art.

Harrison obviously has divided feelings about sculpture and memorializing men. On the one hand, she lovingly made these "guys" with a very sensuous, attentive touch. On the other, she's pointing at how relatively rare and maybe old-fashioned stand-alone medium-sized sculpture is. Indeed, nowadays museums and galleries are brimming with atrium-and-room-filling installations of stuff. Harrison is acknowledging that the form she's using is considered conservative and passé. Yet, like Amy Sillman who approaches painting similarly, Harrison evinces a real passion for tradition. Along with lots of other contemporary artists, Harrison and Sillman love art; they're not arguing with it as postmodernists or casting themselves as somehow against it. They continually contest and question the forms and structures of art but they also use artists whose work has either been deemed too well-known or tapped-out to tinker with. They remind us that just because certain movements and artists go out of fashion doesn't mean they can't still yield aesthetic pay dirt. Their work is a further indication that what might be called the "Oppositional Aesthetics" of late postmodernism, the boring binary idea that one thing always has to negate another, is finally—and may I say thankfully—waning.

Thus, Harrison's graveyard is fuller than meets the eye. The surfaces seem to be covered in scar tissue, crust, and fermentation, leaving these little phallic monoliths and monsters suspended between reality and decay, clownishness and tragedy. You get a vivid sense of damaged lives and lurid histories. Harrison has given us sculpture that is at once obstreperous, ossified, rotting, and weirdly touching. Which is a good description of the rule of men today.


Artist Schmartist
Snide show: Cary Leibowitz leaves his lipstick traces

Whether it's a noble cause or a survival strategy, this gallery's stated mission is to "focus on mid-career artists who emerged in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s." Although almost every dealer shows artists who emerged during these decades, it's nice that this gallery is going through the back catalog of recent art history to see who's been left behind. This micro-niche is paying dividends in the current show of Cary Leibowitz, that intermittently excellent sad-sack connoisseur of all things gaudy, queer, Jewish, and beautiful.

Once upon a time in the early 1990s, Leibowitz, who then also went by the name "Candy Ass," was a poster child of the über-popular burp variously deemed "Pathetic Aesthetic," "Abject Art," and "Loser Art." Leibowitz hasn't exactly been "left behind." His rousing 2001 Andrew Kreps exhibition, titled "Gain! Wait! Now!," included paintings that said "Stop copying me" and "Do these pants make me look Jewish?" Unfortunately, his follow-up show was lackadaisical and iffy. Leibowitz has always been an up-and-down artist. For the "up" part, before the first Kreps outing, he made colorful hand-painted signs that said things like "Don't Steal My Car Stereo, I'm Queer," "I slept with Martin Kippenberger," and "Knock knock. Who's there? Loser."

For this typically uneven, self-deprecating, cutely snide, and wonderfully double-entendre-laden show, Leibowitz includes a brightly colored circular painting that says "tondo schmondo," surrounded by knit caps that say "Fran Drescher Fan Club." There's also a series of lipstick-colored paintings that say "I Love Warhol Piss Paintings," a Marcia Tucker seat cushion, a Cindy Sheehan megaphone, and "J'Adore Gertrude Stein" buttons. Although this is only Leibowitz in his middle gears, the exhibition suggests he ought to show more. If he had been included in MOMA's current unfunny "Comic Abstraction" exhibition, for example, people might at least have giggled. If he were granted the franchise to open gift shops in a few American art museums, it could be even better.


jsaltz@villagevoice.com

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