There can be something poetic about the frailty of human existence. It has been our habit to push against this vulnerable side and try to control our environment. Despite this effort, there is a level of futility in our plan. Something will always be broken. Something will inevitably not fit in the right order. If we look close enough, there is always something unresolved and discordant.
This past winter, I was fortunate to speak with David R. Harper regarding his work on the brokenness of humanity and our obsession with putting it on display. The conversation pulled me from a winter despondency and put me back into my studio working. It gave me fresh life.
I often have to remind myself how fortunate Ive been in my career. Im always thankful for the opportunities that Ive had, and I always try to remember some main tenants that I was told when I was starting out: be a good person. Be mindful.
David works with a visual language that discusses history, psychology, death, and feelings of loss and love in a way that is fascinating and haunting. Many of the works evoke the feeling of looking at something you shouldntbut at the same time, you cant look away.
Every piece I do, theres always a center point, and if you spend enough time with the work, and understand the language, I think youll see the center point like I do, and then draw out from there. Ill know the work before I even start building it.
After having done the Arts/Industry residency program through the John Michael Kohler Arts Center twice, David developed a large body of ceramic work. David and I talk about an immersive installation, titled My Own Personal Ghost, on view at the Arts Center in 2015-16.
I can tell you that the act of making art appears as something much more beautiful in the artists head than it does in the actual studio. In my studio, the act of making something is daunting, chaotic, messy, and lonely, but in my head, it is graceful and full of mystery. Thats what I was thinking about when I made that installation. When [the viewer] entered the gallery, they could sense that the space belonged to someone who wasnt there. And through their quiet encounter with the objects in that space, they could weave a narrative about who belonged there. I wanted to show how physical and mental space can be symbiotic in the context of art making.
Davids process becomes clear when you see the work. Some of it seems painstaking, like the weaving and intricate embroidery. The effort and diligence on the artists part is also evident in each cast object.
Im extremely fascinated with the futility of things we think we know for sure. Confidence is a very strange thing for me. In this act of being an artist and trying to figure out my own work and displaying it before the public, I feel theres a constant balance between confidence and cowardice. And so I like to look at things that are seemingly confident, like museology. Museums, for some, can just represent a collection of our greatest accomplishments, but for others they can seem like displays of our failures or futilities.
I am interested in the environment in terms of a deep fascination with the natural world, but I am also interested in the environment as in the spaces we physically create for reflection. Natural history museums and museums dealing with the evolution of civilization, for example, can put an isolated artifact on display that has been taken vastly out of context, cut out of its original environment and propped up in these archives that can seem like tombs. These big and bold museums are actually showing our frailties. Display after display, objects and artifacts are being held so still so that we can observe them, but we are also being kept from them. Youre destroying something so you can more carefully appreciate itstilling something wild and free so that you can watch it without consequence. Similarly, we remove pieces of ruins so that you can look at part of it without having to go to that placeits environment. These are spaces that hold so much wonder, but at the same time, show so much cowardice and failure.
I was taken to the Natural History Museum in New York when I was a kid regularly, so it was already a part of a visual vocabulary that I understood. It was an access point for me to then make critical observations about collecting and display, and to reflect on humanitys strange need for control. The act of stilling, looking, observing, taking. More recently my interests have evolved to things like fractured statuary thats been put on display. Ive been buying up reproductions of particular Hellenistic sculptures, breaking them further, and putting the broken pieces on display.
We have been obsessed with our own fate since the beginning of civilization, so there are all these beautiful works about the mystery of death. I think that, in my work, Im reflecting on these ways that weve failed ourselves in recognizing our follies of the past. Making a monument to something, a memento mori, doesnt mean that thing is over or resolved. It is meant as a marker to remind us of that thing, but it should never be considered resolved because nothing ever is. Weve never resolved a single thing in history. It evolves long after the statues have been cast or the history written in books. So I think in my work I am looking at all these things that we havent wrapped up and we havent figured out, but have paid homage to through art. And part of the biggest mistake I think we make as civilization is confidenceconfidence that we figured it out.
David is an internationally recognized artist. Visit DavidRHarper.com to view his work and learn more.
Kay Myers is a local artist and freelance writer.