I suspect Rachel Harrison knows how strange it is that her artworks are expensive luxury goods. As you enter her current exhibition, the first work you see is a gangly pile of styrofoam that looks like somebody spraypainted on a tree; around its base lies an ironic tangle of the low, silver barriers museums use to keep you off their valuables. The show, entitled The Help, features a half-dozen sculptures and twenty-odd drawings, each of which taps into a particular kind of ugly-pretty; they scream rebellion, but will still make for a nice contrast in the mid-century modern living rooms of their future owners. Until then, they look great at Greene Naftali.
The rough, unevenly-painted sculptures are the centerpiece, intentionally garish and unapologetically lumpy; it is something of a revelation to discover that this is, indeed, what beautiful looks like today. They’re generally made to look top-heavy—with cement bases and styrofoam spires—and then set in motion by pairs of complementary colors, applied with all the delicacy of a paintball gun. The result led Annette Monnier to describe one of Harrison’s sculptures as looking like “a fat cartoon”, an image which, once stated, is hard to un-see; Harrison’s neatly squared tetrad of colors is a direct loan from Franz West, one of her admitted influences, but it might equally have come from a Dr. Seuss book. As it turns out, sculptures with the off-balance silliness of a cartoon can also have a lumbering weight to them.
All this, though, is the set-up to a joke: walk around to the far side of any of the pieces, and you’ll find hidden readymades that add crushingly mundane, occasionally hilarious purposes to the forms: one paint-splattered boulder exists to hold your vacuum cleaner; another is a plinth for your whey protein. One, inexplicably, is a room to sit in when you want to look at peppers. Read as simple juxtapositions, these would be unoriginal; the exceptionally neat fits of the consumer objects, though, point to a deliciously ironic utility.
One sculpture, All in the Family, very nearly ruins the effect. It looks a bit like a hulking, purple square bracket, or a niche for a medieval jamb statue of some apostle; it holds, instead, a bright orange Hoover, identical to those in Jeff Koons’s vitrines. The reference is unnecessary, and tempts the viewer in the wrong directions: towards a view of the works as art-jokes or ironic shrines—in which case, they’re all pointed the wrong direction, away from the gallery entrance—rather than as more-or-less earnest forms that happen to also hold vacuum cleaners well. Fortunately, the sculptures are made of tougher stuff than that: whenever they appear to be too arch, their thoroughly hand-worked surfaces draw you right back in.
The walls, meanwhile, bear a series of drawings that take roughly the form of a science experiment. The hypothesis seems to be that you can make a drawing of Amy Winehouse look different depending on whose style you reference. It is a fairly exhaustive study: Picasso is there, and de Kooning, and Gauguin, and Duchamp; for the Bacon drawing, Harrison rotates about twenty degrees around the color wheel to accommodate his favorite shade of orange. They’re well-executed, fun, and often funny, as in the de Kooning-style woman wearing day-glo shorts, or the Winehouse with disjointed, Picassoid eyes that still manages to look like a plausible face the singer might have once made. That said, they’re perhaps pleasing more because they make you feel good than because they are good; there’s the same sort of spot-the-art-history pandering going on here that you find in the recent work of Jon Rafman or Olaf Breuning, where the works mostly exist to make you feel clever. It doesn’t feel as though Harrison has actually discovered anything, visually, for all this investigation.
On the whole, however, this is one of the best shows in Chelsea right now; while the drawings are unfilling, they make a pleasing appetizer, and the sculptures in the main course are vigorous and ha-ha funny. In the school of ugly sculpture, there’s nothing to say that Harrison has chosen the best possible forms; these, though, feel pretty close.