Review: Rachel Harrison, “Life Hack”

December 9th, 2019

By India Halsted, Barnard College

As part of JAC’s push to integrate more digital content in accordance with our 2020 journal theme, “New Media, New Messages,” we are thrilled to present this online-only exclusive. Here, our very own Events Coordinator, India Halsted, reviews “Rachel Harrison: Life Hack“, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until January 12th, 2020.

Inspired by India’s review? Be sure to submit your own art-critical writing and/or original visual artwork for consideration in JAC’s 2020 edition. Submissions are due January 20th! Further details are outlined in our submission guidelines.

In a sea of colorful forms, a man stops to take a quick snapshot and simultaneously proclaims, “This is her most important work!” before hurrying quickly to the next gallery. Ironically, he asserts the sculpture’s significance without examining it fully: on the other side of the rock-like rainbow form, a television screen and glistening steel trash can stand concealed from his sight. The work in question—Hoarders, 2012—is an intuitive opening to Rachel Harrison’s solo exhibition “Life Hack” at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This anecdote could function to mock tourism and suggest a lack of “proper” engagement at museums; indeed, the sculpture circulates on social media as the show’s most recognizable press image. That man, in his hurry, introduces the piece alongside questions explored throughout the exhibition: Hoarders garners a particular significance among Harrison’s works because it playfully highlights the importance of curation, both within assemblage and exhibition.

In the style of other survey exhibitions, “Life Hack” features exemplary works across Harrison’s career, dating from the early 1990s. The exhibition displays a diverse array of works, including sketches of pop singer Amy Winehouse, photographs of a supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary, room installations (one with customized paneled walls) and colorful sculptures. Through the careful selection of works, curators, as proxy for the museum, decide which are Harrison’s most significant pieces, telling each visitor a story about her artistic development and significant interests. But what is that narrative?

The exhibit opens onto a small gallery, featuring a shelf of various mason jars equally spaced along one line. Each jar contains a plastic bag, some filled with inconspicuous liquids and notably one with cigarettes. The wall text reveals that for Dinner, 1991, Harrison took each component of her meal into plastic bags upstairs from the restaurant and tacked them to a wall. Surprisingly, there is no smell coming from the food, reportedly preserved for the past twenty-five years. In using identifiable objects — plastic bags, mason jars, and in other galleries, trash cans and clothing — Harrison conjures the banal and “mundane.” In separating each element of the meal, she foregrounds each constituent part of the whole experience, elevating the deconstructed meal to the status of fine art.

Harrison’s plastic-bag approach to separating elements is echoed in a later work. She collects these materials from her day-to-day life, similar to how she collects photos and hangs them on sculptures or installations. For example, one gallery presents wood-paneled walls with small, framed family-album style photos. In the next, a lemon-colored sphere, balancing upon a stand of intersecting, black poles, displays photos, this time in black-and-white.

The next gallery returns us to our prescient opening. The central gallery, slightly larger than other galleries in the show, stages several other works in conversation with Hoarders. Together, they present an immersive approach to curation. Several playful forms are placed with “readymade” objects between streets — Main St, Elm St — which have been mapped out on the gallery floor in black tape. Hoarders, 2012, is one of several examples of Harrisons’ distinct pastel-colored, body-size sculptures made of wood, polytyrene, chicken wire, cement, cardboard and acrylic. These materials conjure everyday associations; often, they are used in home and landscaping construction. Like these materials, the street-like mapping of the gallery floor recalls the construction of a neighborhood or small town.

In this central gallery, a photographic series hangs on each wall, framing the sculptures.  One series documents a 1990s media sensation wherein a Virgin Mary apparition appeared upon someone’s window frame; another presents the effects of light upon a small, tourist image of a sunset re-photographed in a lighting-studio style. Harrison abstracts the context to document the tactility of the window surface—a hand stretches to touch the apparition—and that of the photograph, the glossy finish, bends and folds all highlighted. The gallery places these images next to Harrison’s colorful, sculptural forms, some of which include photographs among their materials, to subtly suggest the curatorial tendencies of the artist herself.

On one side of the room, between photographic series, an opening between this gallery and the elevators visualizes where the exhibition begins. A rope stretches between these spaces, offering visibility yet limited access to the exhibit’s beginning, confirmed by a guard’s presence on the other side.

Similarly, chairs encircle a roped-off sculptural installation in a later gallery. These chairs face away from the configuration, which collects colorful creations of the artist’s making alongside clothing pieces, wood boxes and other household objects. Like the mapping out of streets along the gallery floor, this sculptural installation guides the visitor through space as the positioning of openings between galleries suggests a preferred path for circumambulation.

Harrison’s work as presented in Life Hack overwhelmingly resists unity and conformity. However, if one through-line is to be found across her many practices, it is the ongoing focus on processes of framing, curating and collecting. In placing “found” images and objects approximate to, assembled with, or alongside her larger constructions, she underscores the curatorial role implicit in the work of the artist. Her repetitions and reconstructions draw attention to the process of making, playfully pulled from and towards disparate directions.

For across the exhibition’s landscape of contrasting materials and forms, Life Hack communicates the importance of curation, holistically connecting Harrison’s different material practices throughout the exhibition. While Harrison’s work may hint at institutional critiques through its blurring of boundaries between artist and curator, the Whitney has given space to this discourse, perhaps containing its critical potential. From which many question arise: is the solo survey an outdated exhibition form? What are the politics of exhibiting a white American woman’s work in conversation with itself? And finally, as the title implies: does the show successfully “hack” the institutional context?
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