“Assorted Varieties” is the title of Rachel Harrison’s first Chicago exhibition and also the name of the best piece in it. Unlike the rest of the show, that sculpture doesn’t need to be part of a conversation about art, culture or politics. Given its own room, the magic of its presence is its own justification.
A colorful, weird lump of something—a bashed-in breadbasket?—sits atop a pedestal like an ancient treasure in an archeological museum. Except that the pedestal itself, three painted boxes, is an inseparable part of what sits on it, like a torso to a head. The progression of surface patterns and luminosity of the boxes (one is clear plastic) is all part of the design. So is the interior of one upper box that has been papered with grocery-store signage for the “assorted varieties” of Mario Batali pasta. We may assume that the artist was aware that Batali, a celebrity chef, was facing charges for sexual assault. But that partially concealed nod to current sexual politics is only there for those who peek inside to find it.
That was the high point of the exhibition. In the second room, the references to culture and politics are more upfront, and more necessary to validate what is visually awkward or banal. Two eight-foot tempestuous lumps of polystyrene dominate the floor and echo our political dichotomy: one red, the other blue, both not quite human. One holds the notorious “My Pillow,” that has come to symbolize the successful marketing of white supremacy and reactionary politics. The other holds a box of Rice Chex Cereal with an inset of celebrities hyping the brand’s “Muddy Buddies.” They’re both too absurd and pathetic to even be ironic. They are so far beneath the sophisticates who shop at art galleries, such viewers can easily savor their political and cultural superiority.
But they can no longer savor frozen cherry pies! A news story from 2018, cut, framed and hung on the gallery wall, tells us that frozen-pie contents had just been deregulated. Bad news for those whose grocery stores only carry one or two national brands (which would be most of us). Worse news for those who like to see art in art galleries. But probably good news for those who like confirmation of their contempt for free-market capitalism.
This exhibition is truly about the “assorted varieties” of post-war American art. The works on view reference Abstract Expressionist sculpture, advertising copy transformed into Pop Art and anti-capitalist agitprop. The show also has the minimalism of a “Curious Yellow Stud”: a narrow shaft made of glass-fiber-reinforced concrete and acrylic paint, that rises vertically off the floor. Behind it hangs an architectural photograph so banal it’s called nothing other than “Photograph.” Conceptual art about conceptual art. On another wall hang some framed Post-it notes referring to unidentified art criticism where the “firestorm of controversy” has precluded any interest in content. So much stuff about art—and so little worth viewing more than once, if at all. I don’t know which is worse: the low-end consumer products of unregulated capitalism or the high-end art that appropriates it. Yet over the past two decades, New York artist Rachel Harrison has established her brand in the art world just as firmly as Sara Lee has continued as a recognizable name in frozen desserts. Both are all about that first principle of marketing: knowing your target audience. (Chris Miller)
“Rachel Harrison: Assorted Varieties” is on view at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 West Fulton, through January 8, 2022.