The Architect's Brother at the UNM Art Museum
By Steven Robert Allen
Fantasy isn't necessarily escapist. From Shakespeare to William S. Burroughs, artists throughout the ages have developed elaborate imagined worlds to explore aspects of our real world.
In a similar vein, we have Robert ParkeHarrison. In 1994, he received his Master of Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico. Since then he's gone on to become that rarest of creatures—a thoroughly successful artist. His eerie yet comforting photographic images have garnered him international acclaim that's culminated in a touring solo exhibit called The Architect's Brother, currently showing at the UNM Art Museum.
ParkeHarrison collaborates with his wife, Shana, to create fantastical images using a variety of complex, innovative and painstaking photographic techniques. The result is work that almost looks like illustrations for a postapocalyptic fairy tale in which ParkeHarrison himself plays the lead role.
Dressed up in a frumpy black suit, he takes on the persona of a kind of heroic caretaker of a damaged earth. Sometimes this role is quite literal. In 1999's "Mending the Earth," for example, we see ParkeHarrison with a giant needle and rope, literally sewing a ripped piece of volcanic earth back together. In 2000's "Arbor Day," he's standing in a clear-cut field littered with stumps, wrapping branches around the limbs of a dead tree. In 2001's "The Sower," he's riding on a propellered contraption that looks something like a piece of flying clockwork. Buckets of water attached to the machine pour out onto the field below, while ParkeHarrison stands on a swing, dumping a box of seeds into the soil.
There's a consistency to the fantasy world he's created over the years. Each image seems to be part of the same lengthening epic narrative. The landscapes are bleak, brutalized, colorless places, but they're also magical. You might not want to live there, but they'd certainly be fun places to visit.
ParkeHarrison's photographic fantasy is charming partly because it seems so optimistic. He comments on the damage we're doing to the planet, but he makes it seem possible to recreate the world purely through the application of goodwill.
Another attraction is his subtle humor. In "Tree Stories," we find our hero seated at a desk wearing headphones attached to a tangle of wires while typing a news report on an unlikely giant typewriter. He's outside and surrounded by large stacks of freshly cut logs—a pleasingly ridiculous scenario.
In "Passage," he's in the middle of a large, serene body of water, huge hammer in hand, wood strapped to his back with a piece of string, constructing a walkway of boards across the surface. Far up along the left edge of the image, you can just make out a tiny sliver of land, apparently ParkeHarrison's ultimate destination.
From giant dandelions to impossible Rube Goldberg machinery, ParkeHarrison populates his world with appealing strangeness. It's easy to understand why he's achieved such widespread popularity. I'd love to see this show with a group of kids because I think ParkeHarrison's imagination taps into the same sort of pristine mystical fantasy life that's second nature to the best children's authors.
The Architect's Brother, an exhibit featuring work by Robert ParkeHarrison, runs through Dec. 11 at the UNM Art Museum. 277-7312.