Monkeying around

Sep 20, 2006 at 12:00 am

I once heard legendary critic Clement Greenberg say he didn't look at work by people younger than 35 because he felt they hadn't lived long enough to be able to express anything artistically worthwhile. It was with relief that I later confirmed Vincent Van Gogh was 37 when he shot himself.

Megan Harris is in her early 20s. She hasn't even graduated from art school — she's a senior studying fiber and animation at the College for Creative Studies. Her work consists of a menagerie of malformed puppet sculptures posed in dioramas, put on stage in plays or presented in films. Each of her sculptures has a backstory and inhabits its own world of the artist's invention. Her stop-action animated short of the digestive process of a blobby creature who eats something picked from a tree in a landscape straight out of Hieronymus Bosch by way of Jim Henson's Dark Crystal was one of the best things CCS's student show last year. Harris' work is, in a word, theatrical — the very thing the puritanical Greenberg and his formalist followers wanted to purge from visual art.

Another thing that no doubt would have bugged the Greenbergians about Harris is the hybrid nature of her work. The formalists believed the duty of each artist was to ensconce a medium in its most fundamental conditions. Paintings should be about flat surfaces, sculpture about three-dimensional space, music about tonal relationships and so on. But Harris' work is all about transgressing boundaries. She's a craft artist with fine art ambitions when it comes to experimentation with material and form, a sculptor whose objects are intended for play-acting as much as and perhaps even more than "serious" aesthetic contemplation. Her films are populated with a plethora of characters, whose unique sensuous qualities are best experienced in the flesh, something the mediated process of animation prevents.

One thing that can't be denied is the sheer technical virtuosity of Harris' work. She's already mastered techniques for dyeing materials, such as PVC, which the rules say can't be done. Her sculptures, whether larger-than-life marionettes or miniature beaded-basket figurines, possess an astonishing level of detail, from needle-felted wool stitching to intricate hand quilting to various types of appliqué to hand-dyed fabrics pieced together in a dizzying array of textiles and textures. "Marlish," for example, features a nubby upholstery fabric torso festooned with fuzzy woolen moles, a sagging neck made from rubber-mesh drawer liner and a mouth lined with silk batik.

Each piece is finished off with buttons and baubles and flouncing and floss, augmented by an assortment of unexpected materials. (One sculpture uses heavy cement nails for claws; another has tortoise shell combs for teeth.) Underneath it all are armatures and stuffing especially chosen for a particular effect and use.

Harris' work is the fruit of the flowers of evil originally sown by Andy Warhol, whom Greenberg utterly detested. (It was Warhol who opened the Pandora's box of postmodernism with his statement that art is anything you can get away with.) Her work most closely relates to Warhol progeny Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy. Like Kelly's tatty sock monkeys and McCarthy's pecker-nosed tree-humpers, Harris' oddballs are wretched. But rather than being repellent; they're somehow endearing. (Harris claims it's impossible to make anything with fabric that isn't cute on some level.)

Greenberg, especially in his geezerdom when I met him, just wouldn't have gotten it. Too bad for him.


Meghan Harris is currently working on a puppet show for her senior thesis exhibition in May.


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Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]