Born Detroit, 1989 / BFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago / Lives in Detroit
Some time ago a camel was shot. Later, artist Matthew Harrison acquired the animal’s right shoulder bone, complete with a ragged pre-existing bullet hole, and CNC cut a 130 mm diameter cylindrical through-hole, creating the sculpture Untitled (2015). Harrison’s simple intervention leads to a number of profound comparisons. First, the cut hole is jarringly precise, but still crude relative to the free-flowing shape of the bone. If the cut hole is a surrogate for man’s technical prowess, then it is also a reminder of how unsophisticated our engineering skills remain in relation to those of nature. Second, and this may be closer to the artist’s intentions, the physical violence of the gunshot hole seems archaic in comparison to the surgical symbolic-violence of the cut hole. If the gunshot hole symbolizes a period from the late-colonial era onwards, the cut hole can only point to the digital age.
In his sculptures, Harrison uses large-animal bones to symbolize the exotic, both in a general sense, and more specifically for him as a twenty-something African-American artist who grew up in Grosse Pointe. He is undoubtedly aware that exoticism has, historically, often been conflated with race, but seems to be making the point that it is more accurately a function of the viewer’s perspective – and that race is irrelevant. Harrison’s relationship to technology also shows an interesting perspective. He works in the design studios at Ford Motor Company, and clearly this has been an important formative influence on his art practice, providing him with a working level familiarity with advanced technological systems and processes that might seem abstract (or even exotic) to most artists.
An important overlap between Harrison’s artistic life and his day job at the design studio is the idea of the prototype. In a concept that informs his artwork, he talks of “everything being a prototype – for something that follows.” His world view is an all-encompassing one of systems in constant flux, multiple perspectives on reality, and consequences that result from both physical laws and socially constructed codes – including those that exist specifically for him as a black man in a society where race is not a negligible factor.
For his 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, as part of the Detroit Affinities series, Harrison designed, built, and operated two 3D printers, aka “rapid prototyping” devices. As an artist, he conceived the 3D printers as sculptural objects, with form clearly following function. In operation, the printed object is built up from layers of clay, squeezed like toothpaste as the printer head is moved in three coordinate directions. The selection of clay as the printed material results in considerable dimensional variation, and effectively prevents reproducible results. It is, as he puts it, “the weather” in the tiny worlds that he sets up – something out of his control.
In preparing for the installation/performance (which he titled Consequence of Platforms), Harrison created an initial 3-dimensional scan of a tourist-trade African mask. Then, over the almost four month duration of the show, he went through a cyclic process of printing the mask, scanning the resulting object, and then re-printing the mask. Predictably, with each iteration the resulting shape diverged further from that of the original object. The overall process can be thought of as a metaphor for the attenuation of cultural memory with time. More specifically, for Harrison, it might represent a model for the divergence over time between African-American and African culture.
Surrounding the 3-d printing machines, at close to ground level, were further modified large-animal bones. For example, Hole 1.005. The Consequence of Synthetic Apertures (2016), contains a zebra skull with a cut cylindrical hole mounted in an acrylic case. On closer inspection, there are small smears of automotive clay on the surface of the bone. These are not a gesture applied by the artist, but rather residues of the machining method that requires the bone to be encapsulated for support during cutting. It is an example of Harrison’s ethos of making his processes transparent – nothing hidden. It is hard to predict where his work will go from here, but it seems safe to assume that it will be ambitious, grounded in (his) reality, and, even if the evidence for it is sometimes subtle, imbued with more than a trace of idealism.
Steve Panton, January 2017
Copyright 2017 Essay’d