Robert ParkeHarrison

Stolen Summer, 2006
Scribe, 2006
Black Snow, 2006

Robert ParkeHarrison is, essentially, a surrealist steampunk environmentalist, the prodigal lovechild of Gilbert Garcin and Matthew Barney raised on Antoine de Saint Exupéry, and as you might imagine based on these convoluted descriptions and the photographs above, he's a frightening man.

The three images above and two below, more recent work from the infuriating slideshow applet on his website, are probably best understood in the vein of Barney's Drawing Restraint, although the role of the copious quantities of congealed petroleum jelly in Drawing Restraint - a canvas both unremarkably uniform and unpredictably chaotic, moulded as much by the sophisticated internal interactions within its heaving mass as by the bizarre rituals enacted on it, around it and in it by Barney - is replaced here by a blanket of snow.

The first image, Stolen Summer, is one of the more shocking; the obscene decadence and ruthlessness of the countless crucifixions is absurd, delicately radiant and utterly repulsive. The sickly pallor of the hands at work in the lower register suggests a compulsive fervour in the work of the collector, redolent with moral decay. Scribe is a concept that Barney might well covet. The traditional depiction of 'drawing restraint', its fetishistic, exhausting transference of the contents creative mind onto canvas and the resultant blurring of an individual's identity with his work, has often been a bloody quill; the device strapped to the disembodied hand is admittedly a tortuously efficient incarnation. This destructive entropy of interpreting (or reprocessing) the environment is a major and recurrent theme of his dystopic scenery, and the message here is darker and more subtle than the more directly suggestive environmental moralising in his earlier collections The Architect's Brother (esp. Reliquary, Cloud Cleaner and Breathing Machine) and Exhausted Globe (see below). Black Snow is bizarrely optimistic, depicting a beached and broken industrial 'whale' staining the snow with a pale blood of rust and oil. Like Overflow (see below) it inverts a more common image of nature perishing in the clutches of industry; Dream Fall (see below) could also be interpreted as an absurd subversion of rainfall in the same vein.

Dream Fall, 2002
Overflow, 2006

The entire range of his work has clear tendencies towards the surreal and the steampunk; the compositions, studio sets built and enacted by ParkeHarrison himself, depict 'industry' as a series of Rube Goldberg machines, awkwardly attempting to replace the work done by nature (cf. Airway, The Sower). Images lacking this strong formulaic style, such as those above, plunge further into a more dreamlike world of soft urban skylines, prominently displaying another feature of ParkeHarrison photography: the absence of distinctive human portraits.

The figures in his world are ghostly blurs or disembodied limbs in his more recent work, and an unremarkable middle-aged corporate businessman in older work, effectively a bland 'everyman'. The starkly ethereal Dream Fall (top) is amongst his more whimsical compositions, eschewing his usual blood-and-iron brutality in favour of a quieter, more personal level of entropy. Equally the drowned world of Overflow, with its furniture and unfortunate occupant bobbing in a placid lake the colour of algae bloom, has the sinister undertone of a bleak ParkeHarrison utopia where civilisation has been overcome and ruthlessly blanketed over (cf. Reclamation). One man's utopia might easily become a nightmare for the rest of humanity, but this particular hell is decisively quiet.

Exhausted Globe, 1997
Departure, 1997
Consumption, 1997

This early series from the collection held at the George Eastman House, Exhausted Globe, depicts attempts to 'patch the sky' and, quaintly, abandon the spent planet via jet pack. Clearly influenced by Le Petit Prince, these aluminium prints are the bluntest expression of disenchantment demonstrated in terms of absurd, delusional hope and manifestly forlorn attempts to preserve the inextricably condemned. ParkeHarrison's work is rife with cynicism, black humour and sinister misanthropy, and it is beautifully executed. Perhaps unfortunately, it is his aesthetic sensitivity and subtlety that undermines his message. The sense of inevitability and human frailty in these images is so profoundly, even morbidly, fascinating that it inspires nothing more active than horrifically fixated appreciation; ParkeHarrison does not seem to suggest or desire a 'better' world; if anything he longs for the stark, murky landscape in the window of Overflow.

In the end, ParkeHarrison doesn't want a restoration of environmental harmony. He wants a jet pack.

also on aS.blogspot

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