"Mixed media" are the two words this writer most hates to see on a wall label beside an artwork or on the checklist of a gallery exhibit. What a cop-out, he grouses, knowing full well that if the artist accommodated him and listed all the ingredients of a particular work, there might be little or no room for the rest of the show. Things have gotten more complicated since Picasso first slapped a piece of that day's newspaper onto the canvas he was working on. Developments in technologies, materials and techniques over the last century can make one yearn for the good old days when everything was oil or stone or marble, with an occasional watercolor thrown in to lighten things up. Of course, like most good old days, things were never that simple, either. But one can dream. Until someone like Hilary Harnischfeger wakes you up.
Walking into her first solo show, "Ni Chomei," installed in the back room at Moody Gallery, means entering a fantastic world of bejeweled and glittering pools, a shimmering waterfall spilling out of thin air, a copse of purple and red and silver and pink trees, and a jagged red lightning bolt blazing through silver clouds. It's like strolling into a cartoon, an animated landscape out of Fantasia or Japanese anime. It feels like that, in part, because of the nature of these works -- they're sculptures that read like paintings. All but two are wall-mounted, and most of these are more two-dimensional, like paintings, than three-dimensional. Materials play into this reading as well. Harnischfeger's primary medium is clear resin, into which she casts an array of glitter and sequins, fake pearls and other doodads, in a process that's analogous to pigment suspended in an oil-based medium. The only thing that's missing is the canvas. Guess that's what walls are for.
Comparison with anime is apt for another reason. Harnischfeger spent a formative part of her childhood in Japan, and it is telling that she has chosen as the title for her show the street address in Tokyo where her family lived. Surrounded by Japanese art and artifacts while growing up stateside, her work is informed with Asian aesthetic traditions. Target (all works are 2001) is a landscape of waterfalls and rocks that runs down the wall like an Asian landscape on a silk scroll. However, the rocks are bright silver and the predominant colors are pink and red, hardly earth tones. Harnischfeger's materials remind one of such techniques as enameling, ceramic glazing and inlay. Her work is hard and shiny and colorful, qualities more associated with decorative arts, such as bowls, plates, vases and furniture, than with the representational. In a way, Harnischfeger is bringing the two together; Target takes its title from a small target-patterned "rock," about two-thirds of the way down, that suggests cloisonné enamel work. Another work here that draws on Japanese traditions is Sai-kei, that group of purple and red, etc., trees. The title refers to a kind of bonsai in which a miniature landscape is created, sometimes incorporating small figures. Here, the "bonsai" is made of lamé fabric; the trees rise behind a glittery wall of similarly colored bricks. But it's certainly strange to have the words "bonsai" and "glittery" in the same sentence.
Landscape is Harnischfeger's subject, but strict representation obviously isn't her interest. While she bases her work on the recognizable natural world, her materials and their colors push it into abstraction. There's a constant shifting back and forth between the two readings.
Slide is the title of her lightning bolt, and the name is really a more accurate description of the piece. It kind of meanders down the wall and suggests a highway, but not really, and there are some things that could be rocks, but maybe not, and there's a tree or two and lots of sequins and glitter -- well, you get the idea. Two works that are inspired by real places are Sedona and Montezuma, and they effectively portray the red rock and blazing sunsets of the Southwest. But the fluid quality of the bands of colors in these representations, a quality that is a characteristic of Harnischfeger's materials, also read, perhaps most immediately, as abstraction. The eye has to make an adjustment for the landscape to come into focus.
The pool sculptures are a particular treat. Sculpted of Styrofoam and covered with aluminum leaf, their hollows are filled with resin, in which all manner of magic is suspended. Bending over to gaze into these intricately detailed sculptures is like falling back into the wonders of childhood. La Brea has the slightest wisp of fine glitter snaking across the surface of the resin, almost lost against the jewel-like colors underneath. Plum Tree is lusciously studded with pearls rising out of the resin. Three of these pool sculptures, Fuel Injection, Amber Road and Kuma, are mounted on the wall and so are like windows opening onto another world. They also introduce a new compositional element: reflective decals, used in car detailing (as is the glitter). Fuel Injection, for example, has a highway decal running across the surface of the pool. The decals could be seen as something being reflected in the water, but however they're read, they further undermine any notions of literal representation.
Working in such decidedly nontraditional media, Harnischfeger's Japanese aesthetic is tempered with a pop-cultural sensibility. When asked why she works with such materials, her response is refreshingly straightforward: They're cheap. One suspects, though, that there's more to it than that. There's something in the idea of "painting" pictures of the natural world in plastic, utilizing materials from car detailing, thrift stores and novelty shops. There's something in the idea of rendering a traditional, timeless subject matter in the more-permanent-than-dirt materials of our insistently ephemeral throwaway culture. But you probably wouldn't have expected that something to offer as much delight as it does in Hilary Harnischfeger's dazzling world.
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