“...Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.
‘I travel, you see’, ‘I think’ and ‘I can read’
These titles seem to say...”
The environment interests Robert ParkeHarrison. In the more than forty works included in The Architect’s Brother, the photographer’s first solo museum show now at the DeCordova, his Everyman character, played by the artist himself, schemes and struggles in the Sisyphean task of healing the wounded landscape that surrounds him.
The exhibition materials draw a connection between ParkeHarrison’s work and surrealism, offering comparisons between the photographer’s imagery and paintings by Magritte. The flattery makes some visual sense, calling attention to the incongruous juxtapositions offered so matter-of-factly in the photographs. The central difference lies with the purpose and effects behind the imagery. When the Everyman stitches the landscape with an oversized needle and thread, or attempts an apparent blood transfusion from himself to dying plants, a purpose and justification underlies the otherwise absurd image. ParkeHarrison’s dystopian fantasy world obeys its own unities.
The works on display are divided between framed mid-sized photogravures and largish (3’ x 4’, give or take) gelatin silver prints mounted on panels. The muted gray to yellowish brown tones suit the world depicted, and soft haziness of the images adds to the fantastic atmosphere. The work ranges in date from about 1997 to the present, with most dating from 2000-2002. In recent years Robert’s wife, Shana, has acted as his collaborator in planning and assembling the montages that serves as the basis for the finished images. The earlier works have a tighter focus, with the action mostly occurring close to the picture plane, and show the Everyman in wider range of positions. The more recent, and more effective, constructions step back, allowing more of the blasted landscape in along with the junk-Rube Goldberg contraptions the Everyman operates, while rarely offering more than rear or profile views of him. This creates a more still, mythic quality, drawing attention to the loneliness of the figure’s plight and distancing him from the viewer.
ParkeHarrison explicitly acknowledges Sisyphus in some of his images; Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp comes to mind as a more modern cousin to the Everyman. The latter’s struggles, though not without humor, are rendered in a cooler and less frantic mode, but his unchanging modest uniform and misguided inventiveness remind one of his comic predecessor, despite the more isolated and desperate situation.
As compelling as so many of the images are, it’s ultimately this myth business that grates somewhat, especially over the course of an entire exhibition. That The Architect's Brother evidently refers to the photographer's character as a sort of earth-bound Creator sibling lays it on rather thick. I have no doubt regarding the sincerity of the ParkeHarrisons’ commitment to the environment. Inasmuch as it provides them with a motivating framework within which to pursue their art, all the better. But it does lead to a certain amount of curatorial smoke blowing. The exhibition materials suggest that the artist “constructs beguiling stories that make us consider what we have done or are doing to our earth,” but the images are more suggestive than truly narrative and inspire feelings far more diffuse (and at best, evocative) than environmental concerns. All the talk of the natural world starts to feel like a convenient hook to hang the artist’s imagination on, or, like the authors in Amis' poem, a bit of ostentation. Still, one forgives any high-minded preening in light of the number of arresting images offered.