Shawn Harris . . . from page 1
Harris’s work has everything.
It is sculpture, painting, photography, found object amalgamation, and
I wouldn’t be surprised, due to the nature of the pieces – their built
in architecture and projecting panels and pieces -- if it became installation
art as well.
Harris goes much beyond photography,
but not by relying on Photoshops tricks and other digital wizardy to spice
up his photographs. That's because his works really aren’t photographs.
They use photographs but are something different entirely. Harris relies
on a form of collage, with photography as one element, to create the interest
of his pieces. He also uses found objects, carpentry, glass pieces and other
three dimensional aspects. All to create what I call his “settings.” His
works seem like still theatre, creating a space, a drama and a statement.
And like theatre he is able to use his artwork as social commentary.
By far one of the strongest pieces in the exhibit at the Finch Lane Gallery
is actually one of the simplest. In “Seed Seller” we see a large photograph
of a young vendor (a popcorn seller at a ball game maybe?) with the words
“Preexistence” as the logo on his cap. From the frame of the photograph
extends a rack with packs of seeds displayed. You can choose your gender,
your race, even your occupation. The highest priced seed is a white female,
which sells for $7.99. An Asian goes for $2.69 and a homosexual for $1.39.
An African American female sells for $1.50 (you’ll have to pay an additional
$6.49 to get that white skin). Her male counterpart costs an additional
$.49. But a professional athlete (shown again as an African American male)
sells for a whopping $5.99.
The piece is an explosive commentary.
The seed rack has the feel of an old general store, and the vendor hints
at that bizarre populist arena of acceptance – the national sports industry
– where everyday racists will forget the color of your skin as long as you
can jump high or hit the ball over the fence. It also reaches out in a
global context, a sci-fi comment on the future of genetic engineering. More
poignant, it seems a local commentary, the “Preexistence” of the cap logo
a purposeful code-word for the Mormon concept of pre-earthly existence
and the extra-doctrinal interpretations in Mormon culture of people’s
“placement” on earth (in bodies) dependant on their valiance in the pre-life.
Harris is an equal-opportunity
offender, not only relying on the local, and admittedly easy, target of
the Mormon culture. The national scandals of the Catholic Church have no
problem stepping into his work. In “Sell Me a Papal Indulgence for My Bread
of Heaven” the recent scandals in the Catholic Church may be the medium,
but the message is a reminder about the evil and corruption that tends to
invade organized religion. Harris creates a stage set – literally. Theater
seating is placed in a Baroque church setting, and extends from the two-dimensional
space of the photograph into the three-dimensional world of the viewer.
A young boy, vulnerable behind his spectacles, holds out an unbroken loaf
of bread in an uncomfortable gesture somewhere between offering and appeal.
a look through the entirety of the show and you realize Harris not a one-tune
wonder. Political commentary is not the only thing he can do. He can also
make elegiac works, as in Operation 911. Think of some of the recent “tributes”
to 911, which over two years later still dominates or societal psyche.
There are the FBI agents, recently exposed in the media, who took “souvenirs”
from ground zero and later gave them to friends, family and business associates.
Or, of course, the furor over the political prostitution of 911 images
in the ongoing presidential campaign (give it a few years and we’ll see
images of firefighters at ground zero used to sell trucks and the latest
Then there is Harris’s piece: a long horizontal
collage of images, both photograph and a super-imposed glass etching,
of the interior of an airplane where ghostly figures can barely be seen
walking or sitting. Beneath it all, subtle images of firefighters.
For his tribute to 911, Harris has chosen not the fascinatingly lurid
image of the passenger planes crashing into Manhattan’s towers, or the
senseless rubble of the aftermath. His is a tribute to what 911 really
showed. Yes, we are all vulnerable, and no matter how many wars we wage
here or overseas we will remain vulnerable; but Harris reminds us of the
heroism latent in the best of our souls. 911 is a bullet ricocheting in
the soft spots of our conscious, but in Harris’s work it rends through the
very best of us and reveals us to ourselves like an open wound. These images
we are seeing are the heroes of 911: the “Let’s Do It” passengers of the
fourth airplane, who prevented a greater tragedy in D.C.; and the firefighters
who raced into the towers to save the lives of others only to die in the
crumbling mass or live to clean up the remains of their fallen comrades.
The tone of the piece is quietly honoring: no bravado, no brass bands. It
is a visual moment of silence for the departed heroes.
The singularly non-photographic work in the exhibit,
“Single Downer,” is a powerful work in its simplicity. The rib cage of a
single cow is encased in glass. It feels like a museum piece from some Museum
of Natural (or Unnatural) History. What exactly would the placard
read? “Single Downer leads to the spread of mad cow disease to entire North
American cattle population, fast-food industry completely destroyed, world
markets collapse, devastation by World War III.” Who knows? What the image
represents is not some localized danger, but a reminder of exactly how closely
we are all connected. Like Patient Zero, the promiscuous French-Canadian
flight attendant to whom a fourth of the initial AIDS cases in North America
have been connected. Despite our best attempt to find a hole in the sand big
enough to hide our heads in, we can’t but face the hard reality that for
evermore our world is connected and we are all one.
I say Shawn Harris is our best because he knows how to get at our best
and our worse. He probes our fears, our prejudices, our wonder and our
Is my assessment of this young artist
overblown? I don’t think so. Take a look around this month and then go
to the Art Barn and see for yourself. In fact, in the Art Barn itself you’ll
see an apt comparison. Hanging concurrently with Harris are the works by
John O’Connell, new professor of art at the University of Utah. O’Connell’s
works are layered, encrusted mashes of abstract markings. They are certainly
beautiful. But in the end they don’t really take your breath away. They are
not the axe that breaks open the frozen lake of your mind, to co-opt a phrase
from Kafka. They are accomplished and attractive but they are not astounding.
I would even say that O’Connell is one of the better artists around here.
But he’s stuck in a self-absorbed meandering through material, whereas Harris
has really tapped into a post-modern sensibility and method that seems
to capture our times in an appropriate medium -- which seems to be the
best that art can offer.
Sure, I may be wrong. I may be premature.
I may be excited for the moment. But take a look for yourselves. He’s got
breadth and he’s got depth. He’s got a voice and he’s got something to
say. He’s my Bo Derek. He’s my 10.
The works of Shawn Harris can be seen at the Finch Lane Gallery through
April 9th. He also appears this month in the Rio Gallery's "Artist Grantees
Harris can be contacted at:
2557 South 500 EastSalt Lake City Utah 84106
Read an article on the show in this week's City Weekly.