UNMASKING THE MUSE
New York artist Rachel Harrison anchors her current exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery -- a selection of her signature quirky sculptures, along with some modest but outlandish drawings in color pencil -- with a single framed photograph hung on the wall. Titled The Help, it pictures a detail of a smudgy white door with a beat-up metal handle and lock. Given its modest size, unremarkable subject and neutral palette, which stand in stark contrast to the rainbow-colored parade of totemic sculptures scattered around the gallery, the photo is more than easy to ignore.
But Harrison (b. 1966) has named her exhibition after it, establishing something of a theme. For the photo turns out to depict the maintenance entrance to Marcel Duchamp’s famous Etant Donnés (1944-46) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which of course features, behind a peephole, a wax figure of a naked woman sprawled on the ground, holding a gas lamp.
We have a gendered exhibition, then, a citation of female sex subject to a male gaze. That would be “woman as muse” and, as we shall see, woman as mop.
The notion of “the help,” perhaps already familiar thanks to the popular 2011 movie The Help, is reinforced by the household helpers aligned with the sculptures, one per work-- a carpet sweeper, a Hoover vacuum, a plumber’s snake, an ash bucket, a box of Mr. Clean “magic erasers.”
In his famous television interview with Morley Safer, Jeff Koons ascribed his fascination with Hoover vacuum cleaners to their appealingly anthropomorphic qualities, which include a “lung” and an “arm.” In “The Help,” Harrison confirms and then one-ups his observation. A vacuum is not only anthropomorphic, she suggests, but absolutely female, in both form and connotation.
The kingly purple carpet that stretches across the gallery (reaching from a sculpture entitled The Death of Ironing to one named Hoaders) can only be an ironic gesture, then. It signifies royalty in the same manner as Queen for a Day, the television ur-reality show of the 1950s that would shower various unfortunate women with the consolation of abundant consumer goods.
The Hoover provides a key to Harrison’s sly mockery of the masculine regime that everywhere dominates contemporary art. Not only does she ping off Duchamp and Koons, but also Damien Hirst (via the pair of prescription medicine bottles that perch on a shelf of Lazy Hardware) and both Willem de Kooning and Richard Prince (in one of the untitled drawings, which features an image of a Woman by deK, or is it Prince?). The sharp-eyed might also note a caricature of one of Martin Kippenberger’s pot-bellied self-portraits in another drawing.
Picasso motifs also feature in the drawings, and not to be all Museum of Modern Art about it, but Picasso is easily taken as the touchstone for the entire show, especially in Harrison’s lumpy, rough-textured dolmens, which are garbed in harlequin motley and given a surface and shape that is the polar opposite of classic Kenneth Clark The Nude allure.
Confronting the objects, which also include such over-the-top masculine markers as a drawing of Al Pacino as Scarface and a huge plastic jar of steroid pills, are the drawings featuring portraits of Amy Winehouse (rumored to be all sold to museums at $40,000 a pop). What is she doing here? Could she be the female irrational, a picture of distaff desire?
Mouth agape, heavily lined eyelids drooping, stumbling along on stiletto heels, she is a a grotesque figure who smokes crack, belts out the blues and even tries her hand at easel painting. But with her beehive perfectly peaked and nails exquisitely manicured, she also comes out on top, looking every inch the successful diva, whether or not she can escape the hungry, oppressive gaze of expectation.
“Rachel Harrison: The Help,” May 3-June 16, 2012, Greene Naftali Gallery, 508 West 26th Street, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10001.