RACHEL HARRISON HAS A FLAIR FOR TITLES, even when borrowed, as in the case of her current midcareer survey, "Consider the Lobster." The name comes from a collection of David Foster Wallace's magazine articles, one of which finds the author at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, pondering the "morality" of the American ritual of lobster boiling. Harrison's choice of title is explicitly referenced near the entrance to a companion exhibition with a projection of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's 1936 film Lobsters, but it's worth considering how this "garbage man" of the sea, to borrow Wallace's epithet, might relate more obliquely to her formal and conceptual practices. Does she mean to address American pastimes (like lobster festivals) in general, seemingly benign activities that sometimes willfully obscure cruelty? Is Harrison evoking the apparently ungainly movements of this crustacean? Docs the lobster's diet of underwater detritus point to her own accumulations? Harrison, after all, routinely combines found objects with things she makes, emphasizing the strangeness, humor, and even lunacy that lurk beneath the surfaces of mass-cultural artifacts. Witness the uncanny object that hangs at the beginning of the first installation in the show, an object that could be seen as a psychiatric hospital's bulletin board listing therapy assignments for deviant inmates. But what seems a literal sign of madness under the control of surveillance is actually the directory of offerings from FEGS, a nonprofit health and human-services organization. Harrison's brilliant and witty use of this particular object is typical of her strategy of exploiting the ready-made to imbue her work with the attributes of modern life, whether bizarre or well ordered. Like the lobster, Harrison is a scavenger, rooting in the waste bin of our material lives.
In the Bard survey, curated by Tom Eccles, Harrison goes to some lengths to defamiliarize institutional museum space and exhibition practices, playing with the idea of pedestal and wall and, in certain pieces, exploiting the ad hoc qualities of assemblage to undermine the sense that a work is even finished. In the four installations that unfold, one after the other--Snake in the Grass, 1997; Perth Amboy, 2001; Indigenous Parts, IV, 1995-2009; and Car Stereo Parkway, 2005--and then in a room of individual sculptures and another of videos, she addresses contemporary experience with a tough tentativeness. Harrison courts contingency and provisionality, actualizing the quick changes, instant attention shifts, and nomadism of contemporary life. She prefers, as much as possible, to preserve a sense of flux, a state that is typical of her studio practice, where elements are gathered, moved around, swapped out, etc. We get the feeling that she may still be pondering her decisions. At Bard, walls are not pristinely finished according to regular museum etiquette but are left with gouged grooves revealing the two-by-fours behind the Sheetrock of former installations. Sculptures are left on the dollies that rolled them into place, though these dollies turn out to be integral parts of the sculptures. A gap in a wall between two galleries is closed with a pileup of leftover pedestals, recycled for a new use.
But do not be fooled by this casualness. As with Wallace's edgy essays on popular culture, Harrison's assembled elements can be read closely, almost like poetry. She is also the equal (in witty social analysis and exuberant use of material culture) of Cady Noland and Mike Kelley, Isa Genzken and Franz West, and, further back, the Rauschenberg of the Combines. Yet the true origins of Harrison's aesthetic may be traced back to the artists and attitudes of Colin de Land's New York galleries of the 1980s and '90s, Vox Populi and American Fine Arts Co., where a down-market, funny, casual, and significant intellectual bohemianism flourished, somewhat under the radar of the booming art market. …