Put a Wig On It!
The white cube can’t quash Rachel Harrison’s anarchic spirit.
Huffy Howler, 2004. Wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, Huffy Howler bicycle, handbags, rocks, stones, gravel, brick, one sheepskin, two fox tails, metal pole, wire, pigmented inkjet print, and binder clips. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; T.B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2008; courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph by Jean Vong
So many museum exhibitions are annoyingly tidy—they want to show you something, and teach you a bit, and the goal is for the whole experience to be choreographed in such a way that large groups of people might shuffle along, reading explanatory labels, murmuring, taking pictures. “Rachel Harrison Life Hack,” a survey of the artist's work now open at the Whitney, kicks things off on a very different note: less didactic, more WTF.
Exit the museum’s fifth-floor elevators and you’re confronted with blown-up, wall-sized photographs of previous installations, most from the 1990s; grungy and rough around the edges, one of the artworks pictured is simply a large mountain of pink garbage bags. You have to seek out the first wall text to figure out what, exactly, you’ve landed in the middle of. That text is tucked beneath a mixed-media piece (a publicity still of the actor John Davidson, with a mop smashing into it) and it includes a sentence that approximately 98,121 institutional professionals have previously written when confronted by any artist who’s too weird for words: “The resulting works are open ended, inviting us to become active participants in the production of their meanings.” You don’t say!
Harrison, now in her early fifties, is a gritty sculptural collagist. She’s one of those artists whose lists of materials can be as interesting as the work itself: fake peaches, a colored wig, Antonin Scalia mouse pad, Honeywell T87 thermostat, Jeff Gordon wastebasket, selfie stick. Like Isa Genzken, she’s prone to import the occasional child-sized mannequin, to unnerving effect. A 2012 sculpture on view here pairs one of Harrison’s trademark lumpy, painted-polystyrene blobs with a tiny garbage can. It’s called Hoarders, and seems eager to make a point: There’s more stuff in the world than we could ever throw out, so we might as well get ingenious with our cast-offs.
Everything here is ripe for a good recycle, whether it’s a shitty Huffy mountain bike or a pair of old socks dipped in paint. The mood is set with a to-scale reproduction of Harrison’s first solo show, which was staged in 1996 at Arena, located at the time in the Brooklyn townhouse of gallerist
Renee Riccardo and art critic Paul Laster. Every surface is plastered with cheap materials—faux- brick and wood paneling—and decorated with slapdash photos: street scenes featuring abandoned garbage. Funky, colorful blobs act as wall-mounted holders for cans of peas. The overall impression is of a tight architectural space imploding in on itself.
Throughout the show, we get an ample taste of how Harrison juggles photography, found-object assemblage, and sculpture. It’s sometimes tough to tell if a work is profound or totally inane; most rest, queasily, somewhere in the middle. If there’s magic here, it’s alchemical, a process in which a few ordinary things start chattering with each other: publicity stills of Johnny Carson hanging on the exterior of a bright, ovoid sculpture; a rolling trolley structure that exists simply to prop up a tiny, sealed cup of water from a long-ago Virgin Atlantic flight. A cynic might suspect a certain randomness at play—toss enough bonkers allusions into a blender and let us “active participants” be stuck with the job of “producing meaning”—but a certain purity of vision proves that Harrison isn’t just clowning.
Which is not to say she isn’t having a hell of a lot of fun. Her titles operate like little winking poems (Valid Like Salad) or lowbrow jokes. Consider Nice Rack, 2006, which uses a Hallmark greeting card rack as a platform to display a Duchampian snow shovel, a rotary telephone, and a cheap reproduction of a Hans Haacke artwork. Toward the end of the exhibition, a heaping handful of large sculptures are clustered together, surrounded by a circle of cheap metal chairs (their price tags still affixed) which operate like nightclub bouncers.
White-cube museums can so easily sterilize or neutralize a truly wild artist, but this show, in all its pleasant oddness and disarray, escapes that fate.. And for anyone too confused by the bric-a-brac aesthetic, there’s a stand-alone room offering something completely different: A series of empathetic and eclectic portraits that the artist made of the late Amy Winehouse.
In the end, Harrison comes across as a conceptual artist who hasn’t forgotten the value of entertainment. These disagreeable objects (to borrow the title of an old SculptureCenter show, which itself borrowed from Alberto Giacometti) have stories to tell, interrupted by fits of giggles, belches, and interludes of sincerity. A lifehack is defined as “a strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way.” As such, that’s a funny title for this exhibition, which is all about waste, excess, and inefficiency. But Harrison’s work might hack into your life in smaller, subtler ways. In the days after I saw this exhibition I couldn’t help but find sculpture all around me, close to home: a mountain of baby gear in my bedroom, surmounted by a candycane-shaped body pillow; my transparent nighttime mouth guard, tossed atop Rami Malek’s face on the cover of September’s GQ. Harrison encourages us all to become avid hoarders, glimpsers of random moments and strange possibilities.