By NICOLE KAACK, MAY 2016
In September 2000, the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the windscreen of a second-story window in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Within days of this purported miracle, the working-class neighborhood was inundated by pilgrims come to offer prayers to the incredible image. Although Marian apparitions are not infrequently reported, this particular instance is notable in its orientation not towards communion with the religious figure, but towards her image. Such an imagistic manifestation of belief aligns itself almost too perfectly with the impulses of a culture increasingly oriented towards visual validation. Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy (2001), an installation of sculptural and wall-based works that is currently on view in a second floor gallery of the New York MoMA, reflects upon the cultural relationship with representation tacit in this event and its aftermath.
Perth Amboy is an installation that unveils itself in stages. Entering the gallery, all that is visible is a mass of cardboard angles and enclosures that come together as a maze-like screen. As I weave my way through these flimsy barriers, I begin to catch glimpses of color, notice the bodies of fellow visitors orienting themselves towards objects yet unseen. In this array, I am pressed to actively search out Harrison’s sculptural compositions and photographs, which appear to me as unexpected phenomena in the midst of the banal assortment of drab cardboard dividers. As I encounter the hidden works — Marilyn Monroe emerges as a plaster bust from a Stor-All box on the floor, Becky Friend Of Barbie stares complacently at an abstract print from a white, wooden plinth — the promise of revelation is gradually eroded by the inferiority of the rewards, which bespeak the quality and curation of dollar stores and tourist traps.
Harrison’s choices of objects are literal in drawing correspondences between mass consumption and culture; one composition couples a can of La Morena salsa with a small-scale replica of David Teniers the Younger’s portrait of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery (1651). Each set narrates a character’s relationship with high culture, modeling various culturally appropriate responses to art work. Through the cartoonish expressions of the figurine admiring a photographed sunset and the ceramic sculpture peering curiously up at a knobby, gray sculpture, Harrison communicates the awe and reverence that we are expected to demonstrate when confronted by a masterpiece. The reductive nature of the depicted interactions casts a critical eye upon the way in which an audience is pigeonholed into a particular engagement with art, one that is as pre-fab as these sculptures.
Harrison’s photos provide an alternate model to the reverence that we are meant to feel for the work of art. Capturing individuals as they pray to the Virgin in Perth Amboy, the photographs are more interested in a relation between viewer and representation than in documenting the image of the apparition itself. Reverent hands press against the screen, earnest in their attempt to touch something always just beyond reach. The apparent purity of this devotion is interrupted by a pair of photos catching two girls from behind as they look at a token of the Virgin Mary fitted in one of their wallets. Echoes of the sculptural show seem tantalizingly captured in their desire to capture themselves in association with the transcendent image, even though the only image that Harrison permits us is that of their perfectly coiffed and curled hair. What does it mean for the girls to aestheticize this devotion, to look at it from the other side of the screen or the glass and call it beautiful? Why is it that we perceive a sincerity in the photographs that, in the sculptures, is pure kitsch?
Through her installation, Harrison speaks to a culture seized by spectacle and egotism. The parallels that Harrison suggests are both biting and frighteningly legitimate; the young women regarding a Marian token at the site of the miracle (in a manner which suggests the taking of a selfie) are no more or less dignified than the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm having himself painted in his gallery of collected works. The pleasurable reflectivity, the satisfaction of mirroring, is tacit in the Harrison’s assessment of a contemporary engagement, one that is more interested in creating an image of self as cultured than in the work presented before one’s own eyes. Harrison draws the worlds of photograph and sculpture together in a work that presents an image hung from a sky-blue canvas. In the photo, a pair of hands strains to touch the face of the Virgin. Suspended from the canvas, Harrison removes this religious adoration from the real, if quotidian, sphere in which it originated and displaces it into the realm of artistic adulation created both by the sculptures that she has composed and the museum in which they are housed. Through such displacements, Perth Amboy scrutinizes established notions of worth and aura, implicating both in the desire to consume the cult image that is equally the ambition to become it. WM