Photo: Robert McNair.
"To Remind, or to Warn (installation detail)"
David R. Harper, "To Remind, or to Warn (installation detail)," 2012, ceramic, polyurethane, felt, paper, cast acrylic plastic, enamel, epoxy, pigment, flocking, cow hide, sheep hide and wood, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery.
DAVID R. HARPER: Entre le chien et le loup
Sept. 27 to Dec. 21, 2013
College Art Galleries, Saskatoon
By Margaret Bessai
David R. Harper is recognized for his unusual mix of method and materials, such as the embroidered decoration on taxidermy exhibited in last year’s blockbuster survey, Oh, Canada, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. The title of this exhibition, Entre le chien et le loup, comes from a French idiom referring to deep twilight, a darkness in which an approaching silhouette can be seen, but friend or foe cannot be distinguished. The phrase, between the dog and the wolf, also implies emotional uncertainty, the nuanced space between hope and fear. Harper’s art functions in a similar manner, exploring the liminal between human and animal, memory and memorial.
When Harper was researching colour history, he read about the cyanometer, an instrument developed by 18th century scientist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure to measure blueness. The device, which correlates alpine distances with colours of the sky in 54 increments from near-white to navy, inspired Harper to represent metaphorical distance with colour gradients. For instance, in A Fear of Unknown Origins (II), the protective space created by disguise is delineated in a grid of 72 clay masks modelled after dollar-store animal costumes. “The animal/ human relationships that I create in my work are very significant,” says Harper. “I will often use the animal form, or reference an animal in the stead of a human, to speak about very human conditions.”
I tried and I tried and I tried, an embroidered intervention into a copy of a historic painting, also incorporates a gradient, but as a strategy for describing individual acts of remembering, as well as public remembrance. The painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps, by French artist Jacques-Louis David, shows the general on a rearing horse. Napoleon commissioned and distributed many versions of this idealized portrait, preferring to celebrate a theatrical representation of his genius rather than acknowledge the mundane reality – he was an indifferent horseman who actually rode a mule through the mountains. In Harper’s version, Napoleon’s horse seems to dissolve into light, an effect created by the various shades of grey thread that Harper hand-stitched into the canvas of a giclée reproduction. “The thread creates light, texture and depth ... both erasing and drawing focus to the subject; erasing it and monumentalizing it,” says Harper. Recent research into brain function has shown the act of remembering is a process of re-inscription. Each time we remember, we are, in fact, creating a new memory rather than simply pulling out a file and reading it as a computer might. Even our most personal selves are fluid.
Harper, born in Toronto and based in Chicago, credits his studies at NSCAD University in Halifax and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for his rigorous commitment to research. “Every material in a piece is specifically chosen to speak to historical narratives and process,” he says. Like a hypertext link, each element in an installation carries symbolic references. The assemblage thus functions as a memento mori, inviting contemplation to create meaning.