What We Look For When We Look At Art: Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

In Fall 2000, Rachel Harrison set out to document a modern-day pilgrimage to Perth Amboy, NJ. Residents there claimed to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary in their second-story window and people were flocking to this town on the outskirts of New York City to behold Her presence. Harrison’s resulting project, Perth Amboy, is currently being re-staged by MoMA fifteen years after its original presentation at Greene Naftali Gallery.

From early on, Harrison’s work has presciently combined sculpture and photography to explore our relationship to images more concretely. Here, she pairs her own photographs from Perth Amboy with a series of found-object sculptures. With this installation, Harrison questions how we view art and, more specifically, what we look for when we view art. In retrospect, it represents her archetypal project.

Harrison’s understated photographs forego documentation of the apparition and focus instead on the moment when visitors touch the window in hopes of gleaning any lingering presence. One photograph eerily captures the faint image of a person’s face, just visible through the glare of reflected sky and the accumulation of handprints. In effect, the handprints form a new image, one that recalls the smudges that initially conjured the Virgin Mary. With an emphasis on contact, Harrison’s photographs transport the image of this holy apparition back into the physical realm.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016.

The rest of the installation, which fills the entire gallery, is set up as a cardboard maze that limits our mobility and seems to entrap us within the space. The cardboard panels are unaltered except for the folded scores that allow them to stand on their own, somewhat precariously. Situated (and sometimes hidden) among them are seven sculptural arrangements, exhibited on customized bases that include a mirrored pedestal and a Stor-All box. The gallery is so crowded with cardboard that it is difficult to look at more than one of these tableaux at once, and impossible to view them collectively.

Several pairings focus on the act of looking, with one object contemplating another. In one, a ceramic figurine of a Chinese scholar meditates on one of Harrison’s characteristically lumpy cement sculptures. In contrast, a family of porcelain Dalmatians gazes up at a crumpled chipboard envelope as if it were an important monument. Others focus more directly on photography: a Becky doll (Barbie’s disabled friend and coincidentally "the school photographer") views an unspectacular image of a green wall and a miniature bust of a Native American in headdress admires a framed snapshot of a sunset (a remnant from Harrison’s earlier project, Sunset Series*).

Rachel Harrison, detail of Untitled from Perth Amboy, 2001, wood, GatorBoard, cardboard, Becky Friend of Barbie doll, thumbtacks, and chromogenic print, 96 x 38 x 41 inches.

Each pair is a reiteration of the others, a repetition of the gaze (and the projections that accompany it) that is central to the artist’s project. By relating her own pieces to common objects, Harrison may be poking fun at her own work and contemporary art in general, but more likely she’s taking aim at the loaded nature of the gaze, the awkwardness of the exchange between a viewer and an object.

Here, the observed objects signify nothingness, or at least an absence of clear meaning or function: an empty envelope, an abstract sculpture, a generic sunset photograph, and a green screen, which represents digital invisibility. Harrison’s readymade figurines are searching for something in these objects that they may not find, and this, perhaps, is what they share with the people documented in the photographs that line the gallery walls. Still, the effort is admirable.

Harrison may have been drawn to the initial spectacle in Perth Amboy as a skeptic, but she clearly respected the power of the apparition. Unlike the sculptures, there is no mocking tone in her photographs of the faithful. After all, it was the power of an image envisaged from a few smudges on a windowpane that drew crowds of people to an unassuming two-story house in the suburbs. It’s a similar power that transfixes the figures in Perth Amboy and keeps us wandering this cardboard maze.

Installation view, Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy, The Museum of Modern Art, March 19 – September 5, 2016. (All photos: Chris Murtha)

Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy
On view through September 5

The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street

*Harrison’s Sunset Series (2000) featured photographs that employed various analog distortions to create distinct images of the same sunset snapshot.

Bending Light: Allison Malinsky's Sculptural Paintings

Allison Malinsky, Passing Through, 2016, oil on canvas, rubber, linen twine, and wood dowel, 35 x 12.5 x 18 inches; Courtesy of the artist

I recently wrote a catalog essay for painter and longtime friend Allison Malinsky's solo exhibition at Galería Victor Saavedra in Barcelona, Spain. Titled "Bending Light: Allison Malinsky's Sculptural Paintings," my essay traces the development of her work since she relocated to Spain. Karen Leader, Ph.D., also contributes an essay on Malinsky's evocation of the body in her three-dimensional paintings. You can read both texts and view an electronic version of the catalog below or at www.allisonmalinsky.com.

Malinsky, whose work I featured in Force of Nature, is currently an Artist in Residence at Cooper Union. You can view her recent paintings and works in process in the residency's exhibition, which opens Wednesday, August 3rd, and remains on view through August 17th. More info at Cooper Union.

Two Reviews for Artforum

Alicja Kwade and Peter Linde Busk currently have a few things in common: both are Berlin-based artists enjoying their first solo exhibitions in New York City in galleries that just opened new locations. Mostly by coincidence, I recently reviewed both exhibitions for the Critics' Picks section on Artforum.com. Use the links below to read the reviews.

Alicja Kwade
I Rise Again, Changed but the Same
303 Gallery
Extended through July 14

Peter Linde Busk
Any Port in a Storm
Derek Eller Gallery
On view through June 19

Top and bottom: Installation views, Alicja Kwade, I Rise Again, Changed but the Same, 303 Gallery, NY; Middle: Installation view, Peter Linde Busk, Any Port in a Storm, Derek Eller Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Overview: Spring Highlights

Jessi Reaves at Bridget Donahue
On view through June 5

Jessi Reaves’ recent installation at SculptureCenter was intriguing but too small to encompass the breadth of her project. This exhibition impresses with an excess of funky, homespun pieces of semi-functional, inside-out furniture displayed in a showroom setting. The most prevalent materials are plywood and foam, which the artist often leaves exposed, though they are normally hidden beneath upholstery. In addition to repurposing found furniture, Reaves also uses leather scraps, silk, plywood, sawdust, and driftwood to create lounge chairs, cabinets, bookshelves, lamps, and tables. In Rules Around Here (Waterproof Shelf), 2016, a free-standing shelving unit is “waterproofed” by clothing it in a midnight-blue vinyl case that doubles as a kinky dress, emphasizing the natural relationship between design and the human form. For Mind At the Rodeo (XJ Fender Table Noguchi Knockoff #2), 2016, she creates a variation on Noguchi’s iconic table, using fenders from a Jeep Cherokee truck for the legs. This piece is indicative of how Reaves uses her own slapdash style of design to appropriate modernism, replacing its pristine tendencies with something more human.

99 Bowery | Chinatown

Top: Installation view with Muscle Chair (Laying down to talk) and Beaver's Lunch (The Uncoverer), both 2016; Bottom: Installation view, “Jessi Reaves,” April 10 – June 5, 2016, Bridget Donahue, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Josh Kline at 47 Canal
On view through June 12

Josh Kline, who isn’t shy about his politics, shares his apocalyptic vision of employment, which reduces everything to disposable commodities, including workers. In a carpeted gallery, 3D-printed sculptures depict dejected employees—most notably, a mortgage loan officer—curled up on the floor and wrapped up in clear plastic bags. They are ready to be discarded or recycled, just like the silicone casts of bottles and outmoded computer parts that are piled up into shopping carts. In Universal Early Retirement (spots #1 & #2), 2016, Kline advocates for guaranteed basic income with two commercials that imitate the idealized aesthetics of banking and pharmaceutical advertisements. Instead of blissful relief and financial security, Kline offers to liberate time from the limitations of a monetized system. In a darkened side gallery, a series of virus-shaped pods, titled Contagious Unemployment, 2016, are suspended from the ceiling. Like time capsules, each sculpture contains a banker’s box filled with the kind of personal belongings the recently laid-off would assemble from their cubicles—a potted plant, children's art, a baseball hat, and a spare tie. These are objects that tether a job to life outside the workplace, humanizing the daily grind. At least you get to take them with you when you go.

291 Grand Street | Lower East Side

Top: Installation view with Universal Early Retirement (spots #1 & #2), 2016; Bottom: Installation view, Josh Kline, “Unemployment,” May 3 ­– June 12, 47 Canal, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)

Ken Price at Matthew Marks Gallery
On view through June 25

In 2013, I was blown away by The Drawing Center’s exhibition of Ken Price’s works on paper, a show that spanned the sculptor’s entire career. The cups! The volcanic landscapes! The west coast noir! Similarly, this exhibition features previously unseen drawings that run the gamut, from his early sculptural studies to the spare Los Angeles interiors and car crashes he depicted in the 1990s, and onto the lava- and lightning-charged landscapes he created until his death in 2012. Price’s work in the medium has a laid-back graphic sensibility and his application of background washes and vibrant blocks of color points to the influence of popular art, especially comics and illustration. Several drawings, such as Egg Flower Specimen (1968), detail sculptures that may or may not have been realized, whereas others situate the amorphous forms that were typical to his later ceramics within acid-toned desert landscapes, as in The Beautiful West (2005). While his earlier drawings benefit from a relationship to his three-dimensional works, Price’s surreal landscapes stand on their own, rendering a desolate, imaginary world that has an uncanny resemblance to our own.

523 W 24th Street | Chelsea

Top: Car Plunge (detail), 1994, Acrylic and ink on paper, 14 x 11 1/4 inches; Bottom: All Alone (detail), 2007, Acrylic and ink on paper, 9 x 6 inches.

Other Recommendations:

Lui Shtini at Kate Werble Gallery
83 Vandam Street | TriBeCa
On view through June 4

Ariel Dill at Turn Gallery
37 East 1st Street | East Village
On view through June 12

Hilton Als at The Artist’s Institute
132 E 65th Street | Upper East Side
On view through June 18

"Frida Smoked" at Invisible-Exports
89 Eldridge Street | Lower East Side
On view through June 19

"Overview" posts provide recommendations for current exhibitions in and around New York City.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s Otherworldly Treasures

In King of Lesser Lands, an eclectic but focused exhibition at Andrew Edlin Gallery, we are introduced to the world of self-taught artist Eugene Von Bruenchenhein by a long row of erotic pinup portraits of his wife. As intriguing as they are awkward, these photographs are almost generic compared to the visionary works that follow. Von Bruenchenhein proclaimed that he was of noble descent but also referred to himself as a visitor to this world, theorizing that there was a “First World” that Earth had splintered from during a cataclysmic event. In light of this, many of his works can be interpreted as documents and artifacts of this fantasized world.

Von Bruenchenhein’s vision is most fully realized in his paintings—Technicolor skyscrapers and otherworldly landscapes that evoke popular science fiction imagery and Charles Burchfield’s more mystical works. The imaginary vistas and aquatic microcosms depicted in paintings like To The Endless Span of Creation (1954) and Sea Fringe (n°882) (1960) radiate with frenetic energy. To achieve this effect, the artist worked quickly and spontaneously, using his fingers, combs, crumpled paper, and sticks to manipulate the paint—scraping, pushing, and fanning out the oils in vibrating, electric patterns.

Von Bruenchenhein’s sculptures are evocative of unearthed royal treasures: miniature thrones intricately constructed from painted chicken bones, leafy ceramic crowns and vessels, arrowheads fashioned from broken glass (not exhibited here), and large-scale concrete heads that lined his house like spiritual guardians. All of Von Bruenchenhein’s works were made entirely at his home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—he even hand-dug the clay for his ceramics and fired them in his coal-burning oven—and they remained there during his lifetime.

Photographs taken of the artist’s home shortly after his death document the overwhelming accumulation of artwork and bric-a-brac. His ramshackle palace was an extension of his art and a kind of museum in its own right: the exterior was a patchwork of color, doors and walls were painted with scenic and abstract imagery, and placards with handwritten poems and theories hung throughout. His paintings and sculptures are presented here in stark contrast to the way that Von Bruenchenhein lived with them and, though that may be unavoidable, some of their power is lost. Nonetheless, we should be thankful to behold such curious and forceful treasures.

Top: Untitled, 1978, Oil on cardboard, 29 1/2 x 13 1/2 inches; Middle: To The Endless Span of Creation (detail), 1954, Oil on board, 24 x 24 inches; Bottom: Installation view, Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, King of Lesser Lands, March 24 – May 8, 2016, Andrew Edlin Gallery, NY. (Photos: Chris Murtha)