“Rachel Harrison: Life Hack”
Time Out says
Supposedly coined in Silicon Valley, the term life hack describes a quick, easy fix for increasing one’s productivity and efficiency, though a cynic might define it as a euphemism for willingly surrendering yourself to corporate soul-sucking. Since Rachel Harrison is no stranger to cynicism, it’s safe to assume she’s being ironic in selecting “Life Hack” as the title of her career survey at the Whitney.
In fact, that choice seems to be less about committing to late capitalism’s empty promises than about the broader absurdity of thinking that life offers any kind of shortcut—especially for women, who, obviously, put up with monumental shit from men. Harrison, however, puts “monumental shit” in a physical context. Though she also works in drawing and video, her default mode is sculpture, a discipline with a rich history of erecting phallic shrines in metal and stone to male privilege. It’s no surprise, then, that Harrison has devoted herself to turning the genre’s gendered legacy on its head.
Harrison emerged in the early 1990s, a period following the 1987 stock market crash that derailed the go-go ’80s art scene. Many galleries shut down, forcing artists and dealers alike to formulate some life hacks of their own. A prime example was Harrison’s first big splash: a 1996 installation at a Brooklyn apartment-slash-gallery that’s been remounted here at the exhibition’s entrance. (Oddly, the wall text omits the venue’s name, which was Renée Riccardo’s Arena Gallery.) Referencing a New York Times story about the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, the work is an organized mess of photos, found objects and pieces of cheap wood-grain paneling stacked haphazardly against the walls—a curdled expression of Arte Povera aesthetics framed as a devastated mobile home.
That show was critically hailed as something new and vitally important, and it was off to the races from there. Since then, Harrison has made good use of her success, remaining consistently funny, fearless and in-your-face.
These qualities are nowhere more evident than in her two unalloyed masterpieces: 2004’s Huffy Howler and 2007’s Alexander the Great. Situated with other works on a floor painted to duplicate the chalk-outline set of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, the sculptures feature the artist’s hallmark trope of brightly painted heaps of chicken wire, Styrofoam and concrete made to resemble boulders and other irregular shapes. In Huffy Howler, a mountain bike is propped up with a stack of purple blocks, while the tip of a metal rod extending from its rear wheel is festooned with a ripped fleece and a large photo of Mel Gibson as Braveheart. Alexander the Great features an unclothed mannequin of a girl standing on a harlequin-patterned rock; she wears a red cape covered with gold stars and holds a metal bucket printed with NASCAR graphics. A backward-worn mask of Abraham Lincoln in sunglasses completes a tableau that is at once triumphant and ridiculous. Continuing in this same vein, a roomful of colored-pencil renderings features the late Amy Winehouse greeting art history’s biggest swinging dicks (Picasso, De Kooning) with inebriated indifference.
In these images and elsewhere, Harrison has persistently deconstructed the causal relationship between the fragile male ego and the representation of men. You might even say she’s hacked it to pieces.