I went to see Rachel Harrison’s Show Conquest of the Useless at the Whitechapel Gallery last week. It was really refreshing to see it. She is an artist that uses photography, film, sculpture, painting and “architectural interventions”. I saw lots of expensive, glamorous art and expensive, glamorous galleries in Germany. It made me uncomfortable.
Harrison’s work is not glamorous, despite alluding to the glamorous subject of celebrity. Her sculpture entitled Johnny Depp is a crude object made of furniture, polystyrene and cement slathered in ugly purple and gold paint. The only clear reference to Johnny Depp is the gold hoop earring, cheekily referencing his role in the Pirates films. It’s funny and deservedly irreverent.
Although I find her “figurative” sculptures successful in themselves I am much more impressed with her use of discarded gallery materials as structures on which to define the space and on which to place objects and images. As you enter the gallery an enormous wall of unwanted plinths from a variety of London museums and galleries has been constructed. Behind this wall numerous sculptures or assemblages have been placed on further plinths. Against the back wall familiar white structures are leaning. They are more usually seen dividing gallery and museum spaces but here are used simply to display a portrait of Marilyn Monroe and act as objects in themselves. I love this use of the discarded gallery architecture – it could be seen as a critique of institutional waste, or perhaps simply a sign of Harrison’s resourceful use of materials. I can’t help reading it as a critique, particularly after the experience of the pristine spaces and monumental artwork in Germany.
Harrison’s sculptures also have this down at heel, recycled aesthetic. It is an aesthetic ofnothing wasted, no object too discarded, kitsch, or ugly to put to use. And the results are playful, absurd and a pleasure to encounter. This installation speaks to me of both the absurdity and the joy of contemporary material culture.