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You set the scene: installation from Harrison’s Consider the Lobster.

Open To Interpretation

By Nadine Wasserman

Rachel Harrison: Consider the Lobster

CCS Bard/ Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, through Dec. 20

If you’ve been to the CCS Bard Hessel Museum you’ve seen the Franz West sculptures out front. But as you make your way up the path these days you might do a double take. West’s Mercury is currently in drag. Its two vertical appendages are each adorned with a wig. This subversive and playful addition by Rachel Harrison is both a prelude to her exhibition and an inside joke that refers to the frequent comparisons made between her work and West’s.

Rachel Harrison: Consider the Lobster And Other Essays is a two-part project. On one side of the museum there is a survey of Harrison’s work and on the other a collaboration between Harrison and six other artists that she invited to reinstall works from the Museum’s Marieluise Hessel contemporary art collection. The title of the two exhibitions is taken from a book of essays by David Foster Wallace.

Harrison’s work requires close attention and patient scrutiny. If you spend the time, you begin to understand that her inquiry is about art itself—its methods, its hierarchies, its presentation, and ultimately its interpretation. Like many conceptual artists she appropriates, she provokes, and she forces us to think. (Be forewarned that the only interpretive text available for this exhibition is a little green catalogue that costs $5.00 plus tax.) By giving us a diverse set of clues, Harrison challenges us to reconsider what we know about visual language, iconography, popular culture, and the very spaces in which we experience art.

The exhibition includes installations that have been reconfigured specifically for CCS, as well as individual works. The earliest piece on view is Contact Sheet, a photograph from 1996, and the most recent is Green Beans, a sculpture from 2009. At the entrance to the galleries is the installation Snake in the Grass and, in the following gallery, the installation Perth Amboy. Together, these two pieces offer a contemplation about faith, memory, collective consciousness, and conceptual art practice. Snake in the Grass presents photographs of people visiting the “grassy knoll” that the limousine carrying John F. Kennedy was passing when he was assassinated. Not immediately identifiable as such, Harrison gives clues such as a man holding an aerial photograph with route and grassy knoll identified, or a document identifying an important witness. The photographs are interspersed with hanging walls, a rolled-up snake skin, and brick-filled garbage bags. Perth Amboy is similarly confounding at first encounter. The gallery is obscured by a labyrinth of variously sized cut-and-folded sheets of cardboard. These serve to divert the viewer to the photographs along the walls which are equally perplexing at first read. What becomes clear after looking at several of the photographs is that they depict a window in an average house where a religious apparition appeared. The photographs record visitors touching the window as an act of devotion. Harrison makes a comparison between this type of religious faith and the act of experiencing art. Amid the cardboard are painted pedestals containing small vignettes of found objects. In one, a souvenir Indian head with sunglasses by its side gazes at a diminutive photograph of the setting sun. In another, a ceramic Chinese scholar figure contemplates a pearlescent blue “scholar’s rock.”

Harrison’s use of cultural debris is both comical and sober. Indigenous Parts IV continues her exploration of display, iconography, and art history. A video depicting the activities of a low-end auction plays amid a conglomeration of objects that includes Harrison’s multicolored rock-like sculptures, posters of Mel Gibson and Cher, overturned, manipulated, and piled up pedestals, a T-shirt, a sequined skirt, bad paintings, a Buddha figure with stuff piled on its head, and a Styrofoam mango. Like Car Stereo Parkway in the next room, it revels in free association while paying tribute to high and low culture through both quotidian and pedantic references. There are no easy answers here. The viewer has to piece together a narrative from the seemingly incongruous hints provided.

Harrison is so deft at blending and blurring that it is sometimes difficult to tell where one piece ends and another begins. The gallery that contains Car Stereo Parkway also holds Boots, Two Lemons, Hat/Broom, and Table Legs. But they could all easily be part of one installation, as could the individual pieces in the next room. Some of these pieces are totemic and have names like Fats Domino, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, or Stella One. One sports a Slim Fast can, another a Dick Cheney mask, and the last has a mirror with a picture of Hanson embedded in its side. Performance is a hybrid of different artists’ work using a found crate of Martha Rosler’s as its base. Marilyn with Wall incorporates the actual dividing wall of the gallery which has been broken apart. Each of the pieces in this gallery and in a screening room to the left of the entrance demonstrate Harrison’s ability to create multi-faceted hybrids that are open-ended, perplexing, and witty.

Harrison is not interested in definitive conclusions. Hers is a voyage of discovery, and we, as viewers, are invited to come along, but only as active participants. The danger is that we will come away completely baffled and put-off—but at the same time, predictable art is a total let down. What at first seemed completely impenetrable and esoteric revealed itself to be dense but comprehensible and a fitting exhibition for a school that teaches future curators of contemporary art.


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