Power and Prototypes: Matthew Angelo Harrison at MIT List Visual Arts Center


CAMBRIDGE — With his disturbing sculptural work, Matthew Angelo Harrison is aiming at so many conceptual targets at once that he risks being a bit on the nose. “Robota,” his solo show at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, includes a mixed bag of objects — carved wooden African masks and figures; car parts; factory worker clothes like hard hats and protective gloves – cast in thick blocks of transparent resin, making them oddly lush and elegant.

They are uniformly contradictory, equal parts seductive beauty and disturbing menace, though pieces that use African objects have a lucid particularity. Collectively, they evoke a century of ethnographic museum exhibits that have both fetishized and sterilized their meaning. For decades, museums have locked away countless objects in glass cases like lifeless relics of colonial plunder — culture, safely under glass — a practice that Harrison takes to a suffocating extreme. Look closely and you’ll see bubbles along their rough surfaces, air trapped like a last breath, frozen in place.

The gesture is particularly impactful when Harrison is working in an excavation of High Modernism. “Celestial Tower”, a stack of wooden combs encased in a transparent resin tower. The work is a swipe at sculptor Constantin Brancusi, one of the forefathers of the condescending modernist notion of primitivism, an early 20th-century idea that imagined the aesthetics of tribal cultures as pure and unsullied by the taint of modernity. .

Brancusi’s “endless column”, a stack of blocks tapering up and down and first made of wood (there are now countless iterations), might be the most enduring symbol of primitivism, a simplified form that he intended as an emblem of human aesthetics in its most enduring form. basic.

“Matthew Angelo Harrison: Robota” at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Mel Taing. Courtesy of MIT List Center for the Visual Arts

Harrison’s material response, unmistakably deadly, is an elegant critique, beating Brancusi at his own cold formalist game. Not content to let it lie, the artist carved into the block with a mechanical router, digging so deep in places that he exposed the raw wood. I wondered if that gilded the lily. The gesture transforms a dark and implicit disdain – towards colonial violence and the light-hearted display of its plunder – into an explicit rage. How much is too much? Harrison doesn’t draw that line, perhaps succumbing to gut feeling, room to room.

Not all works here are so free. Harrison often chooses to direct your gaze by obscuring certain vantage points: “Echoic Sections”, 2021, a thin wooden mask suspended in its resin prison, is ridged on four of its six sides, offering an unobstructed view only from either end ; two sides of “Fields to Burrow”, 2021, are fitted with the gnarled surface of an oversized Lego block, forcing you to view the wooden female figure inside in profile only. These works, and others like them here, arouse a hyper-awareness of structures that have always favored a particular gaze, nourished by the dynamics of winner and loser, conqueror and conquered.

From left to right: Matthew Angelo Harrison, “The Blue People”, 2021 (detail); “The Red People”, 2021 (detail). Installation view of Harrison’s “Robota” exhibit at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Photo: Mel Tiang. Courtesy of MIT List Center for the Visual Arts

Other works move quickly through the story, linking past plunder to its corollary in contemporary 20th-century capitalism. Harrison, originally from Detroit, worked as a clay modeler for the Ford Motor Company until his burgeoning artistic career allowed him to retire from the field at an early age (he is in his early 30s). This makes him intimate with both production technology and the oft-fractured realm of labor relations. Resin imprisoned posters for United Auto Workers labor actions are sometimes accompanied by heavy work gloves; separate blocks feature helmets.

The works share an ethic of brutal dehumanization with African pieces. The explicit idea – of organized labor and workers’ rights as buried relics, victims of the post-industrial economy – is stark and resonant amid the hard work of current union efforts at new economy giants such as ‘Amazon and Starbucks. (Harrison also routed in several of these works, a hand gesture in the context of the automotive industry, one of the first to replace human workers with robots.)

The artist takes particular aim at Tesla, enclosing the headlights of a Model X in blocks of resin tinted almost black (“Wraith”, 2021). The connection is easy and chilling: Harrison gazes at relics from an ugly past to a darkening future ruled by overlords like Tesla CEO and billionaire Elon Musk. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss. Just worse.


At MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through July 24. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu

Murray Whyte can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.


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