Robert Harrison

Rooms within Rooms: The Installations of Robert Harrison, 1981-1992

Posted on Tuesday, January 14th, 1992

by Rick Newby

First published in the catalog to the Robert Harrison exhibition, “Architecture without Walls,” University of South Australia Art Museum, September 10-October 3, 1992; reprinted, in slightly different form, in Ceramics: Art & Perception (Sydney, Australia), Winter 1992-93.

“. . . he sowed small worlds. . . .” —Odysseus Elytis

Ceramic sculptor Robert Harrison is best known for his site-specific outdoor works scattered across the North American continent,1  but since the beginning of his career a dozen years ago, he has also devoted considerable energy to creating temporary gallery installations, many of which have paralleled the developments and obsessions to be found in his site works.

Usually developed at the instigation of gallery directors in the USA, Canada, and now Australia, Harrison’s installations—despite their obvious connection to his outdoor pieces—allow the Canadian-born sculptor to exercise a side of his nature impossible to fully indulge in those works of his situated out-of-doors. “When I’m working outside,” notes Harrison, “nature always surprises—and delights—me, the effects of moisture and extremes of temperature on my materials, the look of the work depending upon the angle and intensity of the sunlight. Indoors, I get a different kind of pleasure; I can control all the elements, especially the lighting, and instill a sense of heightened drama, an almost magical or spiritual atmosphere.”2

Raised in a non-religious home, Harrison finds himself drawn to spiritually resonant sites and spaces, and his works, both indoors and out, echo and honor the cathedrals, ruins of Roman temples, and Celtic megaliths Harrison visited during a tour of the British Isles and the European continent in 1987. “I see my installations,” says Harrison, “as sanctuaries. When you enter them, I want you to enter another dimension.”

These manipulated spaces might be called the reliquaries of Harrison’s private religion, and the relics they contain—despite their undeniably personal nature—somehow speak eloquently to many who visit them. Like the paintings of Rothko, Harrison’s installations, especially those in recent years, imbue secular spaces with a sense of the sacred.

Harrison began his career as a potter, making vessels out of clay, studying as an undergraduate with Robert Archambeau at the University of Manitoba, and completing his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Ceramics at the University of Denver in Colorado. Always fascinated by architecture and strongly influenced by “the earth art and other large scale work being done at the time,” Harrison began to move away from traditional pottery during the last years of his schooling and created his first installation for his MFA exhibition at the University of Denver’s School of Art Gallery in 1981.

This shift in his work, he says, was “startling” to himself and his potter colleagues. Until then, the only large-scale work he had done was an exercise in his first sculpture class. Using bricks, he built an eight-foot tall, circular, silo-like structure in which he lit a fire, “as if it were a kiln.” It was, he recalls, “an eccentric structure that stood on its own,” the first evidence of his transition from potmaking to the creation of nonfunctional, but spiritually charged architectural works.

Harrison’s MFA installation was also closely tied to the act of firing, and it introduced what has been a key image for Harrison throughout his career: the X or cross form. Small by the standards of his current work, eight to ten feet square, this first installation was Japanese in feeling and drew its strength from the simplicity of its design. Set inside a square wooden frame, two to three feet in height, and surrounded by 500 pounds of loose sawdust, the exoskeleton of Harrison’s hollow X was constructed of commercially made soft or insulating bricks. Harrison then filled the X-shaped chamber with bright yellow, overlapping bags of “Cedar Heights Airfloated Clay, quality since 1924.” “About clay, but abstracted,” the MFA installation, notes Harrison, could be interpreted as a kiln, with the sawdust as a fuel source, ready for a “conceptual firing.”

In 1982, Harrison was teaching ceramics at Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, and as an assistant professor and head of the ceramics program, he was granted a one-man show in the university’s Ad Gallery. The installation he created for this exhibition was entitled Four-X Transposed and was based on a set of four silkscreen prints Harrison had just completed. With Four-X Transposed, moving away from works which simply referred to the processes of making ceramics, Harrison took on more ambitious themes. The original suite of prints, Four-X, introduced Harrison’s concern with the struggle between nature and technology, placing loose, sumi-like Xs over highly mechanical grids. The installation that followed took up the same theme, reflecting Harrison’s basic optimism that “nature is still able to override technology.”

For the installation, he created an eight-foot square grid, again very mechanistic, out of extruded clay; oxidation fired, it had a flawless, neutral surface, “no variations or accidents allowed.” Three feet above it, Harrison suspended by ropes a four-foot square clay X, also extruded; pit-fired, the X had a mottled black and white earthy surface, “very organic and natural,” a handmade look in contrast to the machined surface of the grid. Here, for the first time, lighting played an important role in a Harrison work, allowing him to control precisely the shape and intensity of the shadow cast by the X.

Lucy Lippard has noted that she finds it “interesting that an X across the earth has been a favorite motif for male earth artists,” adding that, though these Xs can be perceived as “anti-ecological” and “domineering,” “it is the attitude . . ., the artist’s sensitivity . . . that determines the effect of the imagery.” generic orlistat ukxenical orlistat price in pakistan 3   While Harrison himself has observed that “the X . . . always seemed masculine to me, very male. . . .” doxycycline monohydrate 100mg cost doxycycline reactions 4   and a number of his outdoor Xs might be seen as aggressively male marks scarring the earth, his use of the X in Four-X Transposed seems profoundly life-affirming and “female,” values he has attributed to images like the circle and the spiral, both of which appear often in his later work.

As a clear affirmation of the natural world (and as a personal icon), Four-X Transposed gave Harrison his first insight into the spiritual impact his work might have on others. Gonzaga University is a Jesuit institution, and Harrison found that many of his priestly fellow faculty members returned again and again to his installation as they might to a shrine. “They loved it,” Harrison notes. “The cross, after all, is an X. It was so abstract and secular, not identifiably Christian, and yet they could identify with its spiritual qualities.”

During 1986, Harrison was hard at work on four major outdoor works—A Potter’s Shrine at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana; Tex-As-X, University of Texas, San Antonio; and X-Isleand Rundlex at the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Arts—and that watershed year, he also created what he terms his first installation to make “mature use of indoor space.” Prefiguring his journey to Europe the following year, this installation at the Alberta College of Art Gallery, Calgary, was also his first indoor work to make direct reference (“too direct for my taste now,” he noted recently) to classical motifs.

The work consisted of a large spiral on the gallery floor with a Greek Doric column set at its heart, two large platter forms (four feet in diameter, three inches thick) lean ing against the walls, and a three-foot tall amphora. While creating the Tex-As-X piece in San Antonio that year, Harrison had begun using adobe, the mixture of clay and straw so popular in building construction in Mexico and the American Southwest, and he formed many of the elements of his Calgary exhibition from this addition to his repertory. The column he built up of “little sausages of clay” on a wire mesh structure, he made the central spiral of adobe and covered it with stucco, and the adobe amphora and platters he threw on his potter’s wheel. The platters, with their spirals, echoed fossilized snails Harrison had come across in the Canadian Rockies and honored his potmaking past. “That’s what making pots is all about,” he says, “spinning, turning, the wheel, the spiral. . . .”

The spiral entered Harrison’s work, he notes, because he was seeking “feminine” images “that were more life-affirming” than his favored X, that “suggested growth and renewal.” In his Calgary piece, the flowing, Neolithic energies that emanate from his pagan spirals on floor and platters were counterbalanced by the column and amphora, emblems of a sun-drenched archaic world dominated by reason and the male will to power. This tension, to be found throughout Harrison’s later work, seems particularly lively here, lending the space an air of suspension, of calm and order that might, at any moment, spiral into a fruitful chaos.

Banff Colonnade, Harrison’s next installation, was also completed during the banner year of 1986 and featured what were becoming the signature Harrison column[s] and spiral. It also allowed him to try new, non-ceramic materials. As Harrison continued to move further from his potter’s roots, he incorporated techniques and materials that had little or nothing to do with the making of ceramic vessels or even ceramic sculpture, and in that regard, he feels that Banff Colonnade was a decisive “outward step.” Created at the gallery at the Banff Centre School of Fine Arts, where Harrison was then serving as assistant head of the ceramics program, the colonnade featured turned wooden columns, gold leaf, and a stone spiral, as well as the adobe and stucco Harrison had begun using at San Antonio and Calgary.

Banff Colonnade, despite its technical innovations and formal beauty, did little to further the maturing of Harrison’s “use of indoor space.” Neither did Harrison’s next installation, at Calgary’s Muttart Gallery in 1989, in which four Doric columns danced diagonally across the rectangular room. It was only with Art/Architecture, a one-man exhibition at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena, Montana, January-March 1992, that Harrison broke through to a new and more refined understanding of the possibilities an installation offers, both in terms of controlling the viewer’s experience of the gallery space and of giving up control, accepting the viewer as collaborator.

“Finally, it dawned on me,” says Harrison, “that I could, through my orchestration of light and space, force viewers to see things in a certain way and, at the same time, encourage them to participate more fully, on a perceptual level, in the creation of this little world, or of many parallel worlds.”

Harrison’s first “room within a room,” Art/Architecture consisted of two rows of columns marching down a ramp in the museum’s Bair Gallery; at the head of the colonnade stood an arch formed of papier-mache-covered styrofoam (colored by ceramic oxides, yet another tribute to Harrison’s pottery roots) and set upon a pair of gleaming steel, gold-dusted columns. The piece culminated visually in an “earthnest” or altar of reddish volcanic rock topped with cast ceramic shells and bathed in light. Over the nest, Harrison had suspended a pair of wooden window frames that might have come from a cathedral, suggesting the presence of a wall, of a “transparent” room set within the gallery. Another, simpler frame—further substantiating the illusion of a room within a room—hung off to the side, lending a slight asymmetry, and its shadow, to the piece. On the walls on either side of the colonnade, Harrison affixed large photocopies of works of art and architecture that had somehow inspired him, from Warhol’s Marilyn to a magnificent Iranian mosque (source for the papier-mache capitals on his columns). Viewers found themselves guided, by the lighting and Harrison’s columns, down the ramp and through the archway, stopping perhaps to meditate at the “earthnest” and then moving on to the room’s periphery to ponder the artist’s favorite images.

Like Harrison’s A Potter’s Shrine at the Archie Bray Foundation, Art/Architecture was an ideal site for meditation or communion, more clearly a sanctuary or sanctified space (for a religion both comfortingly familiar and inextricably alien) than any of his earlier installations, and yet it invited widely varying interpretations. Was it the playhouse of a wise and eccentric child? A place for assignations, the passing of notes and furtive kisses? An educational display at a perverse county fair? A folly in a garden? Or a “reliquary not of saints’ bones, but of [the artist’s] pleasures”? The work’s ambiguity, its “transparency,” as Harrison likes to call it, cried out for analogies; as Roland Barthes has written, “Metaphor is the only way of naming the unnamable.”6

Unnamable, transparent, playfully indifferent to the conventional—with its references to wide-ranging cultures and artistic traditions, its quirky, pastel colors, and offbeat materials (styrofoam, steel culvert pipe, gold leaf)— Art/Architectureproved amenable to collaborations with other art forms, and during its tenure at the museum, it hosted a jazz concert and a poetry reading among its columns, lending a unique quality, congenial and spiritual, to the performances.

Less coherent as a unified image than his earlier works, more complex and susceptible to multiple interpretations, Art/Architecture was the first work in a series Harrison calls “Architecture without Walls,” in which walls are sketched on the air, in a kind of architectural mime. The second is the piece he has created here, at the University of South Australia Art Museum, where—he said immediately before departing for Australia and New Zealand in late July—he hoped to “redefine and refine my concepts, make use of new materials (preferably something I can’t find anywhere else in the world), and improvise a distinctive space, something intimate, magical, and playful.” With this new work, Robert Harrison will undoubtedly sow yet another of his small and sacred worlds: a fictive space that invites participation by all who cross its (imaginary) threshold, a refuge—not always comforting—from the world, large and profane, in which we reside each day.

Rick Newby is a poet, editor, and critic living in Helena, Montana, USA. His articles on contemporary sculptors have appeared in American Craft, American Ceramics,Ceramics: Art & Perception (Australia), Ceramic Review (United Kingdom), [high ground], and Sculpture.

See Rick Newby, “Shrines for Potters,” American Ceramics 9/3 (Fall 1991): 26-33, for a full discussion of Robert Harrison’s site-specific outdoor works. Major outdoor works by Harrison can be found at the Bemis Foundation, Omaha, Nebraska; the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, Montana; the University of Texas, San Antonio; the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Arts; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin; the Kansas City (Missouri) Art Institute; the Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts, North Edgecomb, Maine; and the University of Arizona, Tucson.

All quotations from Robert Harrison, unless otherwise noted, are transcribed from interviews with the author, Helena, Montana, July 1992.

Lucy Lippard, Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), p. 52.

4 Newby, American Ceramics, p. 30.

5 Newby, American Ceramics, p. 30.

6 Roland Barthes, “Requichot and His Body,” in The Responsibility of Forms (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), pp. 210, 225.