Broken China: Matthew Harris pieces together the old and the new at HPAC

"Relocation" by Matthew Harris

'Relocation' by Matthew Harris

The uneasy imagery of sliced-open skulls in Matthew Harris’s “Beyond China” is a reflection of the tensions the artist observed between traditional and Western-influenced culture on a research trip to China. Harris, a ceramicist by training, presents smooth-surfaced terracotta busts of bodhisattvas and Buddhist priests in classical Chinese idiom, their heads cleanly split between the eyes or at the temples to reveal silkscreened inner surfaces of factory workers, luxury goods, and other symbols of modern China. Peering between the two lobes of an aged priest’s head to catch a glimpse of assembly line workers feels like discovering a dirty secret, while other scenes boast of the triumph of the old over the new. One bodhisattva’s head, heavy-lidded and jowly, has been sliced both at the forehead and at the ears. The earless half-heads gaze at each other in profile, while on one smooth plane old men pick through trash heaps in front of high-rises; on the other, an earthmoving machine extends a claw above a corbeled building with cupola. At the other end of the gallery, the bodhisattva’s ears instead offer portraits of two female factory workers staring directly back at the viewer.

Most of the designs applied to the busts’ flat surfaces are representational, but others, such as the camel Burberry plaid on the inner walls of a snarling tomb guardian’s head, have more to do with graphic arts. This tendency is given full expression in Harris’s prints on paper, beginning with a blue and white wallpaper of tiling circles made out of the stamped heads of a classical sage, Mao, and Ronald McDonald. Framed prints of figures repeated into abstraction lend color to an exhibit otherwise heavy on white and brown, such as a set of stylized and overlaid lions in saturated yellows and oranges or an infinite progression of pink and red Buddha heads spiraling down the paper. Two large watercolors bring more color while blurring the lines between representation and abstraction, as each painting takes the rough outline of a human silhouette filled with patterns and fragments of figures. These are the least interesting pieces in Harris’s show, but they maintain the theme of the human form as a container and canvas for other ideas.

A series of black silhouettes on square white panels portray groups of clustered figures, a single water carrier, a potted plant, more huddled people. Their tight grouping and absolute lack of modeling prevents an unambiguous determination of the relationship between the figures–how many are there? What are they doing, and what’s the point? The stark contrast between black figures on a white wall inevitably evokes the work of Kara Walker, but Harris’s scenes bear no emotional resemblance to the high-drama storytelling of Walker’s cutouts. Though some characters’ racial affiliations are obvious, others are unclear. It’s uncertain whether this is meant to be a factor in the message to be heard, or whether there is a message at all.

But perhaps this ambiguity is the point. Though the intersection of China’s long past and rapidly developing future may be strained, the present is not a battleground; though the issues related to historical preservation, language reform, industrial modernization, and economic revolution are real, a moralistic answer may not be the needed one. A little discomfort, in fact, may be a good thing. Of Harris’s many slightly unsettling works, the most curious may be a pair of white amorphous statues. The first, blobby and low to the ground, looks like a snowdrift or a melted mountain range: strange, but not vital. The second, larger, may be its further evolution: still lumpy, it rises several feet high, and resembles nothing so much as a human figure, unnaturally curved and poorly-defined, squatting or rising to its feet. It is intensely uncanny. But its alien shape and sense of clumsy, just-begun motion may be the growing pains suffered in exchange for being, alone out of all Harris’s ceramics, completely whole.
Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Through July 26. (773)324-5520.