Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Architect's Brother: Photographs by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison

From top: Kingdom (image found here); Pollenation (image found here); The Passage (image found here).



The man's name, we will learn from the helpful little cards accompanying these pictures, is Everyman. He is almost always alone. In other pictures, we see him trying to fly by tying himself to a dozen or so large birds, cultivating a field of light bulbs, clinging to a pole high above the clouds and using what appears to be a sextant. We never see the Architect referred to in the series title, so we never learn whether, in these pictures, Everyman is faithfully executing his brother's vision, whether, if he is, that vision is some sort of joke, or whether Everyman is striking out on his own as he pursues his own peculiar vision (and sure, you may read that last in all its various senses). As we look, we see that the means at Everyman's disposal seem hopelessly inadequate to his apparent ends--humorously, quixotically so, but not despairingly so. As the gallery guide puts it, "The emphasis is on the doing of the action, not the outcome. There is hopeful reassurance in [Everyman's] constant and varied attempts to right seemingly overwhelming wrongs" (italics in the original). Another way of putting it: These pictures aren't religious, but they are spiritual. They are something like fables of faith in action: a surface-seeming futility but, beneath, an affirmation of the good that is working in anticipation of the Good.

The actual making of these pictures is worth quoting from the guide in full:

[T]he ParkeHarrisons printed their photographs from large paper negatives made by cutting and pasting a variety of images together. The underlying mechanics of this technique--including the seams between individual images--are carefully painted out in the negative. A photographic print is then made, which is often painted with a layer of varnish or beeswax. This genuinely original technique, combined with their elaborate process of set construction, crosses many creative boundaries. The result is a fascinating hybrid of sculpture, performance, painting and photography.

These pictures, along with a selection from another series called Gray Dawn, photographs in color that also employ the Everyman figure, are part of a show by the ParkeHarrisons called Restoration that's on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art till February 8th. The Mrs. and I went the museum last Saturday on a whim (we hadn't been since the new wing opened last summer), and while we were disappointed that the photography gallery dedicated to the museum's permanent collection of pictures seems awfully small (only a couple dozen works are on display at any one time), we felt really fortunate to have happened onto these pictures. Those of you in the area who haven't yet seen them should do so.

Added bonus: Robert ParkeHarrison (who is the Everyman in the photos) is originally from the Kansas City area. Who says the heartland isn't fertile ground for cool--and thought-provoking, even inspiring--weirdness like these pictures?

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