Rachel Harrison, installation view of “Rachel Harrison Life Hack,” 2019–20. Photo: Ron Amstutz

Rachel Harrison

New York

Whitney Museum of American Art

Rachel Harrison’s sculptures possess a wild and perplexing eclecticism that makes it difficult to ascertain the exact meaning and emotional tenor of her imagery. In her assemblages—which could be called monuments since they memorialize both a series of actions and a juxtaposition of things on a large scale—ideas and processes coming out of sculpture, painting, architecture, popular culture, and the banality of everyday life are placed side by side or on top of each other, without, or at least rarely, becoming one. These works exploit contrasts and oppositions and do not always deliver the formal and psychological tensions or resolutions expected in works of art. Harrison, now in her 50s, embraces a punk aesthetic, filled with discordances and atonalities, which appeals to some, I suspect, because it is loud and seems easy to emulate. Such viewers must imagine that they, too, could become Rachel Harrisons and gain similar recognition for kicking the establishment in the shins. Making a Harrison looks like great fun. What could go wrong? Isn’t it better, the more wrong it is?

Harrison tackles matters of decorum and taste head on. She makes us wonder whether a specific sculpture works, whether it is good (and if so, how good), and whether we care, or not, about it. Her works also prompt self-reflection: Am I out of touch with what is hot, have I become reactionary, why do I often feel no connection to this? The fact that these unorthodox-looking works make us ask ourselves these questions is significant. I start making sense of them by drawing connections to what I know, through a personal vantage point. Most of Harrison’s sculptures consist of verticals that more or less match human proportions. Thus, they creatively expand on the tradition of statuary, whose principal focus is the figure, nude or draped. Until fairly recently, statuary in Western culture was carved, modeled, or cast, and most often statues consist of a single solid entity fashioned out of the same material by way of a more or less identical process throughout (i.e., not mixed processes).

This observation clarifies the unusual and original aspects of Harrison’s sculpture. The roots of her juxtapositions can be traced via Rauschenberg’s “Combines” back to Surrealist and Dadaist assemblages, and, about half a century earlier, to Lautréamont’s evocation of the chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table (in Les Chants de Maldoror, 1869). Parenthetically, Harrison produced Warren Beatty (2007), which consists of a felt blanket tightly clinging to an underlying form, in a manner first arrived at by Man Ray in The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse (1920)— Ducasse’s nom de plume was Comte de Lautréamont. More often than not, Harrison veers toward maximalism in her combination of the handmade and the found object, closed and open forms, abstraction and figuration, three-dimensional object and two-dimensional image (a photograph), real versus ideal, rich versus poor, and purity versus impurity, thereby arriving at a system of oppositions and conflicts that are temporarily resolved, or not.

As presented in “Life Hack,” Harrison’s 30-year retrospective, her works were most thrilling when grouped together in a circle, their forms, colors, and textures cross-pollinating and overlapping as the viewer moved around them. That is when things got rich and exciting for me, confirming that Harrison’s objects come alive when placed in situations of visual and conceptual complexity—such as living spaces—as opposed to the sterile galleries of the new Whitney Museum building. It turns out that these shrines or reliquaries of sorts may be about the messiness and clumsiness of life, and that they benefit from having life’s signs and symbols strewn about them, like fertilizer. With their collage of meanings, gestures, forms, colors, textures, processes, asymmetries, and materials—the quirkier the better, as far as I am concerned—they evoke the pace of 21st-century life, with its glut of images and information: think switching between radio or television channels, or flipping from one application or website to another on a computer or cell phone, 24/7.