Originally published in Artpapers, May 2000
Conrad Atkinson’s "Mining Culture in Technicolor" and Margaret Harrison’s "Moving Pictures and Changing Places/Perfume Politics and Cosmetic Bodies" were on display from September 2 – October 2, 1999 at Refusalon. Atkinson, a cultural guerrilla who mines the methods of conceptual art and combines them with the goals of political activism, has been highly influential, inspiring Tim Rollins (of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.) and Group Material along the way. Harrison personalizes the political. A founding member of London’s Women’s Liberation Art Group (1970), in 1971 she had one of the first one-woman feminist exhibitions, showing drawings that utilized image reversal to subvert stereotypical gender relationships. One of the works, a portrait of Hugh Hefner, "Bunny Girl with Bunny Penis" created such a stir that the gallery was closed down by the police. These two artists, activists, educators and lovers born in Britain, but now living and working in the Bay Area, have been generating socially conscious art for over 30 years.
In San Francisco, their adopted home, this dynamic duo are exhibiting their wares together for the first time. At this stage of their long and illustrious careers, much has been written about these two artists, however, their work has never been addressed in combination. At Refusalon, both work with prettified surfaces serving to cover up societal dangers. Either obvious dangers, as in Atkinson’s glazed ceramic landmines or the more submerged dangers in the glassy looks of Harrison’s cosmetic counter shop-girls. The wicked something lurking underneath both sugarcoated surfaces is brought to the surface by these artists as they unearth "hidden" agendas, in both the tools of devastation, and those that purport to make us devastatingly beautiful. They share an interest in colonization but each with a twist, Harrison, the colonization of beauty, and Atkinson, the colonization of death.
The relationship between colonization and sexuality as well as the hierarchies of beauty in high and low culture captivate Harrison. Particular people, such as shop-girls personify power relationships, illuminating the larger experience of objectification in Harrison’s beautifully rendered but lushly sterile world of perfumed politics. She says, "It seems to me that in order to achieve an art practice which transcends time and geographical boundaries and thus be universally understood, it only has a chance of doing so through an examination and an understanding of particular circumstances." The works in this exhibition, all from 1993-1995, take their titles from the names of large department stores. Inspired by the bar-woman’s gaze in Manet’s "Bar at the Folies Bergere, Harrison’s installation consists of small watercolors of mostly "third-world" make-up counter clerks residing in gilt frames on walls painted forest green. Richly adorned surroundings bring up ideas of inequality and economic colonization, and the very private glances of these women in these very public settings directly engage the viewer in a seductively intimate and claustrophobic endless cycle of self-representation and display.
Conrad Atkinson is a populist who uses humor and pathos "to render reality visible". Atkinson states that the "concern of art is life and the relationship of people to society and of society to reality". In "Mining Culture in Technicolor", Atkinson is concerned with one of the unpleasant realities of our time – the landmine. He creates glazed ceramic mines with provocative imagery. In "Souvenir: Diana Princess of Wales" (1998), photos of Princess Diana (spokesperson for the outlawing of landmines) in regal attire are paired with images of her out in the minefields with images of destitute children affected by the exploding mines. Atkinson also points to the provenance of the landmine. In "Ten Steps to Heaven: Gone With The Wind" (1998), landmines, which were invented in Atlanta for use during the civil war, sit on the steps of a ladder painted gold and are adorned with incendiary images from the movie Gone with the Wind and pictures of the Princess. A landmine also appears in "Mining Football" (1999) where Atkinson embroiders the landmine’s shape onto a football jersey, equating war and sports. These provocative pairings act as a catalyst, setting off art’s potential to explode our notions of culture.
In the entryway to the gallery is a print by Atkinson entitled "The search for a class and gender free context obsesses me constantly" (1989) with the same words written on the bulging leg of a well-padded football player. Harrison and Atkinson continue to make objects utilizing socially relevant ideas, successfully channeling their obsession for a better society to a wide audience, energizing that audience not only to the point of reaction, but perhaps also to the point of action. Bombs away.
by Amy Berk
20 Hawthorne Lane
San Francisco, CA 94105