“For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts,” Gertrude Stein wrote in “Composition as Explanation” (1926)-an essay excerpted in the catalogue for a 2009 survey of Rachel Harrison’s work. This and other truths about the life of artists and their creations were at the heart of Harrison’s most recent show of assemblages, one that examined what it is to make or-given the works’ anthropomorphic qualities-be art.
“The Help” comprised a collection of sculptures from 2012. Most are irregular columns of Styrofoam blocks covered with cement and painted with pearlescent colors, and most integrate readymade items related to cleaning or repair. Accompanying them was a suite of colored pencil drawings featuring the late singer Amy Winehouse.
Winehouse is joined by a cohort of personalities cribbed from well-known paintings. In one drawing, the singer, in motley, drinks with a Picasso harlequin; others find her in the company of a naked Alice Neel, a Fauvist version of Picasso’s Stein, and a bloated, bleary-eyed Martin Kippenberger.
More artistic progenitors turn up in the assemblages. The deep violet All in the Family, whose outlines recall the listing, top-heavy figure of Winehouse herself, broods over a vintage orange Hoover vacuum cleaner similar to those used by Jeff Koons in his sculptures from the mid-1980s.
The weight of art history isn’t the only thing a contemporary artwork has to contend with. These days you also need
a tight act (preferably one that fits well into the prevailing critical discourse). The color-splashed Syntha-6 is an over-6-foot-tall piece with a flabby middle that seems to have let itself go. Set on its boxy top is a large, bright red jar of protein powder-a clear hint that it should tighten up.
A certain kind of bad behavior, of course, has its own appeal; it may even speed art’s way into popular or institutional favor. Lazy Hardware, an attenuated, greenish work with copper dustings, seems to have become entangled in a set of stanchions of the sort surrounding fragile artworks in museums.
The dialogue between object and collector has always been complicated, never more than now, when art must prove its worth as an alternative asset. The exhibition’s centerpiece, Wandering Jew, is inspired by Gustave Courbet’s The Meeting, an 1854 painting of the artist and one of his patrons (suggested by Harrison’s downloadable visual guide to the show). It is a large plywood box balanced on a couple of milk crates. Painted on the front of the box is a gestural abstraction. A ceramic bust of an Indian chief sits on top. The back is open; within is a chair and a hanging cluster of ceramic chili peppers. With its resemblance to a peep-show stage, it’s a space both intimate and slightly creepy.
Like many of the other pieces in the show, Wandering Jew reflects on the mechanics of art’s presentation and reception. In Harrison’s case, it’s the world that may accept, and the works-allusive, punning and resistant-that refuse to go quietly.
Photo: View of Rachel Harrison’s sculpture All in the Family, 2012, with two untitled colored-pencil drawings; at Greene Naftali.