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The Great Amalgamator

Rachel Harrison Life Hack

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, October 25, 2019–January 12, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition by Elisabeth Sussman and David Joselit, with contributions by Johanna Burton, Darby English, Maggie Nelson, and Alexander Nemerov
Whitney Museum of American Art, 279 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
I’m with Stupid, 2007; a sculpture by Rachel Harrison
Rachel Harrison/Harvard Art Museums/Greene Naftali, New York
Rachel Harrison: I’m with Stupid, 2007

We’re all stylists now.

Stylists are the people who accessorize a fashion shoot. They source the shoes, jewelry, scarves, etc. that enliven the image and help viewers project themselves into the scene. If there is to be a prop—a bicycle, a vintage car, or maybe a pony—that too is the stylist’s job. Stylists mix up visual cues in order to announce the newness of the designer’s or editor’s vision. They are interpreters, and the good ones enlarge our notion of what goes with what, of which artifacts can open up, deepen, or complicate our relationship to the primary subject. Like artists, they practice a kind of everyday, multicultural tightrope walk; they engage in a blithe, deliberately ahistorical appropriation. At heart, they have a limitless empathy for inanimate objects; they approach them as supporting actors in a drama. Good stylists have a style themselves, a distinctive, even inimitable way of balancing irony with sincerity, shock with naturalness, and of punctuating a visual narrative; they tell stories, and they leave fingerprints.

It’s funny how durable the figurative is in art—it’s a reassuring presence, hovering protectively over the wilder exploits. The artist Rachel Harrison makes sculptures that are grounded in figurative forms but that are not representational in any traditional sense. Many of her pieces start with a columnar vertical core of approximately human proportions and are constructed out of fractured planes; it’s a language that reaches back to Picasso’s Cubist sculpture Glass of Absinthe (1914). Sometimes the built core is a horizontal lump of rough-textured, faceted polystyrene that resembles a meteorite on legs, to which she affixes any number of visual counterpoints: wigs, sneakers, flashlights, safety vests, modems, digital photos, and other hoarder’s junk. Her works are accumulations of several different kinds of materials, some formed, others found; they don’t portray anything more than their own meandering thoughts. They have wit and an awkward charm. You take the work in quickly, like an exclamation point. Occasionally it stings, but only for a minute.

Harrison’s starting point is a feeling of disconnectedness, estrangement, and simmering revolt fed by a finely cultivated disgust. The disgust is tempered by humor; it’s gleeful and semi-inclusive. Her work feels familiar, part of a long tradition, and also of the moment—what absurdity looks like has to be reinvented for each generation. To flourish in our current visual culture is to establish just the right kinds of connections—between things found and made—that are neither too literal nor so vague as to be like water through a sieve.

Harrison is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Rachel Harrison Life Hack” has been organized by the veteran curator Elisabeth Sussman together with David Joselit, a leading critic of the…

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