please wait for page to finish loading, then click
on thumbnails to view larger images
Spirited Variations || Rooms within Rooms || Shrines for Potters || Earthly Visions
Of Marks and Boundaries
Rooms within Rooms: The Installations of Robert Harrison,
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),
. . . he sowed small worlds. . . . Odysseus
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 installationsdespite
their obvious connection to his outdoor piecesallow 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 surprisesand delightsme,
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 containdespite
their undeniably personal naturesomehow 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
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
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
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."3
While Harrison himself has observed that "the X . . . always seemed
masculine to me, very male. . . ."4
and a number of his outdoor Xs might be seen as agressively 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
1986, Harrison was hard at work on four major outdoor worksA
Potter's Shrine at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana; Tex-As-X,
University of Texas, San Antonio; and X-Isle
and Rundlex at the Banff (Alberta) Centre School of Fine Artsand
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) leaning
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
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
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
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.
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."
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
framefurther substantiating the illusion of a room within a roomhung
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 conventionalwith its references to wide-ranging cultures
and artistic traditions, its quirky, pastel colors, and offbeat materials
(styrofoam, steel culvert pipe, gold leaf)Art/Architecture
proved 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
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, wherehe said immediately before departing
for Australia and New Zealand in late Julyhe 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 refugenot always comfortingfrom 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.
1 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,
2 All quotations from
Robert Harrison, unless otherwise noted, are transcribed
from interviews with the author, Helena, Montana, July
3 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.
Spirited Variations ||
Rooms within Rooms ||
Shrines for Potters