Each Friday, our writers review a few choice (New York) gallery openings from the night before. This week is a bit change of pace—we’re diving into an exhibit instead.


Rachel Harrison, Untitled (Perth Amboy), 2001, chromogenic print, 19 3/4″ x 15 1/2″

by Elinor Case-Pethica, Staff writer

Currently occupying MoMA’s second-floor Dunn Gallery is a re-staging of artist Rachel Harrison’s 2001 work, Perth Amboy. The exhibition takes its name from the town in New Jersey, where in the year 2000 an image of the Virgin Mary was said to have appeared in the upstairs window of Ramona and Marcelino Collado’s home. Harrison travelled to Perth Amboy to document the swarms of people making pilgrimages to touch the window. Perth Amboy displays these photographs amongst a series of sculptures and a cardboard maze installation.

The first question one asks upon entering the exhibit: what is Harrison’s stance on this swarm of people coming to touch a window? Does she admire or sneer? The photographs, formally speaking, are beautiful—hands pressing against the blue green glass, captured in a multitude of unfussy compositions. The photographs alone seem to be providing a look into devotion and affirmation of faith. The rest of the exhibit, however, appears to reject this interpretation, and perhaps to even mock it.

Installation view of Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy

The gallery is filled with a labyrinth of cardboard half-walls of varying heights, looking more like a quickly constructed studio mock-up of a work in progress than like a finished piece. Navigating through the maze (necessary, in order to reach the photos displayed on each wall) reveals sculptures nestled and hidden within the nooks and crannies of the cardboard walls.

Harrison’s assemblages are often constructed from kitsch found objects placed together, or combined with walls or abstract forms and painted crudely to make them, quite frankly, ugly. The sculptures in Perth Amboy, while all visually quite distinct, adhere to a basic formula: something approximating a figure, looking at something else. For example: perched on a tiny shelf, a can of La Morena salsa with a woman’s head printed on the label, regarding a miniature reproduction of Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery by David Teniers the Younger. On another pedestal, a “Becky, friend of Barbie” doll seated in a wheelchair, gazing blankly at a print pinned before her.

Installation view of Rachel Harrison’s Perth Amboy

The series of cardboard walls deftly serve multiple purposes in the show. In a lecture given at the Slade School of Art in London, contemporary ceramicist Jesse Wine spoke about the importance of forced circulation when designing an exhibit: the longer a viewer looks at the work, the more they will like it—and the longer they are in the exhibit the longer they have to look. Harrison is a bona fide master of this technique. The walls also give her sculptures impact. What might otherwise seem too kitsch, too slapdash, feels important and valuable when found hidden around a corner and encountered privately.

While her art is rarely palatable or beautiful, it is undeniably clever and acerbically funny. Riddled with art history jokes and snide pop culture references, Harrison’s work will make use of any and all material with little fear of stepping on toes. Her point is never completely clear—Harrison’s installation is contradictory, blunt, and impulsive, and trying to find a linear reading of it is rather like trying to learn a game where both players are making up the rules as they go.

Rachel Harrison, Untitled (Perth Amboy), 2001, chromogenic print, 17 7/16″ × 19 1/2″

So walking out of the show, the first question remains unanswered: what is Harrison’s opinion on the people pilgrimaging to Perth Amboy? Perhaps, the answer to that question is so hard to pin down because the specifics of the situation in Perth Amboy weren’t what interested her. The whole installation is a testament to the power an object gains when viewed—the Collado’s window, the miniature Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Picture Gallery, the whole exhibition itself. Harrison does not condemn or celebrate, she sees the Perth Amboy pilgrims for what they are: people looking at an object and making it important, no different from us, the museum-goer. The classic Harrison twist is that by the time the viewer considers this, they’ve already completed their pilgrimage to her show. And so, as usual, Rachel Harrison has the last laugh.

Images courtesy of MoMA