Robert Harrison

Robert Harrison: Spirited Variations

Posted on Friday, January 14th, 2000

by Rick Newby

Published in Ceramic Review (London, United Kingdom), Spring 2000.

For more than a decade, from his home base near Helena, Montana, USA, ceramic sculptor Robert Harrison has explored—in a series of subtle and imaginative variations—a set of forms that, even today, fascinates and engages him: the archway, the colonnade, and, most recently, the chimney stack.

Profoundly influenced by Neolithic standing stones and the eloquent fragments of Roman temples, stadia, and aqueducts he has encountered during regular sojourns in Europe, Harrison also draws inspiration from contemporary earth artists (the late Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Nancy Holt, Richard Long), the eccentric structures built by Barcelona visionary Antonio Gaudi, and the possibilities of postmodern architecture.

The first significant sculpture that emerged from this peculiarly Harrisonian mix of influences was Aruina (1988), a row of five unruly brick columns set at the northwestern corner of the grounds of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts (Helena, MT). Connected by tile-and-brick covered arches, the columns of Aruina frame the nearby Scratchgravel Hills and, with considerable wit, play with the conventions of classical architecture. Aruina is made up of modern industrial materials—concrete, stout cardboard tubes (the interior architecture of the columns themselves), and bricks from the adjoining brickyard. Shards from discarded polychrome sculptures by Japanese artist Michio Sugiyama—embedded in the spiraling patterns of brickwork—add touches of Gaudiesque energy and color.

With Aruina as starting place, Harrison began to elaborate and improvise. Though he created other colonnades (his Cullumned Spiral [1989] at the Kohler Sculpture Park in Wisconsin and Black Mountain Colonnade [1994] on his own property are prime examples), he turned increasingly to a simplified vocabulary: the arch, the column, and the buttress.

In 1995, at his alma mater, the University of Manitoba, the Canadian-born Harrison and a group of students fashioned a work—Red River Passage—that marked, in his view, the “epitome” of his efforts to “mix and match shapes, textures, and colors.” Red River Passage—despite its diversity of elements—coheres beautifully. By some species of alchemy, Harrison has brought together seamlessly (while retaining a pleasurable tension) an arch cast of stabilized adobe and covered with tiles, a brick column, and a curving buttress (almost a wall) of galvanized metal. Perhaps it is the paved area, set with manufactured cobblestone “bricks,” that unites the work—and gives it its social dimension, allowing visitors a zone of peace, a place for meditation or repose.

Other particularly significant Harrison archways completed in the last decade (among the more than twenty he has created during the 1990s) include Penland Arch (1994; Penland School, North Carolina) and Medaltarch (1999; Medalta International Artists in Residence Program for the Ceramic Arts, Medicine Hat, Alberta). Unlike the siteworks Harrison has built in the American West, where the landscape is austere (and Harrison responds with rich, saturated colors), Penland Arch is black and white, an elegant Yin/Yang symbol carved out of the vegetal chaos of a dense North Carolina forest. Medaltarch, too, contributes something new to Harrison’s oeuvre: a tiny brick building with its own columns—a crypt, a shrine, a reliquary—supports one end of the arch, underscoring the uncanny sense that humans have dwelt here.

The summer of 1999 brought Harrison to yet another new stage in his art. Invited to participate in the “Creating the Yellow Brick Road” symposium hosted by the University of Wolverhampton, Welshpool, Wales, he spent eight days crafting a new brick-centered body of work. Having previously used fired brick and tile almost exclusively, Harrison found himself facing the prospect— challenge and opportunity —of working solely with wet brick clay. Improvising freely (unlike his usual mode of carefully planning every detail of a work) and using only one material (rather than his usual collage of found materials), Harrison turned first to the familiar vocabulary of the last decade, creating Ironbridge Archway. After completing the arch—and finding himself fascinated by the “ubiquitous British chimney”—he “spontaneously” moved into new territory, designing and constructing his own brick chimney stack, based on the “elaborate [and] organic” Tudor chimneys of Hampton Court Palace south of London (and to a degree, on the stack forms of American ceramists Peter Voulkos and David Shaner). Harrison’s Chimney Stack #1—for him, the most “seminal” work of the symposium—quickly spawned Chimney Stacks—Royal Pair. In turn, these works led him, in the coming months, to devote much of his energy to exploring the chimney form, a form that—like Celtic standing stones and Roman architectural fragments—manifested, for Harrison, a singular presence and power (and the opportunity for infinite and inventive variation).

Most recently, in March 2000, Harrison found himself participating, with three other artists, in a “Big Mud” project at the annual conference of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts in Denver, Colorado. Harrison’s contribution was two chimney stacks he calls Chimney Stacks Pair. Again working with wet brick clay, he crafted his own bricks by hand, faceting them with a knife. As with his Welsh stacks, the new Pair was built in two parts—a broad, muscular base and a slender, more graceful chimney. Harrison constructed the sturdy, stair-stepped bottom out of his customized bricks and then mold-formed the articulated chimneys. Suggesting movement but never moving, Chimney Stacks Pair—reminiscent, rhythmically, of Brancusi’s Endless Column—honors the ancient traditions of brickmaking and chimney-building and lends a spirited presence to its sober brick-paved setting.

During the coming months, Robert Harrison finds himself much in demand: in June 2000, he will teach a workshop on site-specific works (with fellow sculptor Tre Arenz) at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana; in September 2000, he travels to the Northern Potters Association’s “Fired Up North” festival at Preston, Lancashire, UK; also in September, he conducts a workshop at the National Academy of Art and Design, Oslo, Norway; and in January 2001, he opens a mid-career retrospective of his work, “Celestial Offerings,” at Jundt Art Museum, Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington.