Home > Art History, Chicago, Uncategorized > Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection

Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection

The Death of Venus by Roger Reutimann, auto paint and urethane, 75 x 44 x 44 inches, 2010

The top image is from on location at the Chicago Cultural Center; the lower image is from the artist’s website.

The primary problem with this show is that the collection is massive and the space it is jammed into is not.  I was hesitant to be too critical of the composition of the display because I know how hard it would have been to plan out and fit into the area available the huge amount of art works in the show.  There are works on many different scales, from different time periods, different regions and different media.  The curators had no choice but to hang the show salon style and try to create cohesive groupings where they were able to.  The collection is massive.   Perhaps there was an ambition or some insistence to present the collection in its entirety in one show; on this matter, I can only speculate.

Unfortunately, some paintings and printmaking works are hung at heights where the center is anywhere from twelve to possibly twenty feet from the floor.  For example, Albrect Dürer’s Four Horsement of the Apocalypse is at least ten feet up from the floor; there is no way to see the finely detailed lines of work as you crane your neck up at it hanging on one of several interior display walls built for this show to be filled up with the different works being packed in to display.  Having been nose-to-glass with many mature Dürer woodcuts, I know how much of a loss this is for the viewer.  Look at the height of the door in the top photograph which I took and then look at how high up the works are hung.  I’m not sure if I needed a tall ladder or my birding binoculars.  Everything in the two gallery rooms would readily fill its own museum, and not a small one a that.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrect Dürer, woodcut, 1518

On the smart side, the curators made large printed pages that they laminated and placed in holding bins, each page with boxes illustrating the places of art works on the wall, numbering the location of the works and corresponding text describing what you are looking at.  Works with symbolic representations of death, including memento mori, Día de los Muertos art and artifactsGrim Reapers, Angels of Death, images of corpses, bones, skulls and other references to death were together in the main gallery space.  Works related to war were placed in a separate gallery, including the whole War cycle by Otto Dix and the complete Depravities of War cycle by Sandow Birk.  Having previously seen these works displayed evenly at eye level with focused lighting at the MAIC and the Betty Rymer Gallery at MAIC, it was a huge difference to see them stacked in a grid on top of one another like comic book panels from the newspaper.  It was a totally different viewing experience and an inferior one at that.  Given the restrictions of space, it was either editing the collection to a fraction of its size or the dense salon style display schemes employed.

For me, there was a progression of emotions viewing the show.  Interest in the academia of the art gave way to unease; an unease that increased to feeling a little creeped out, to being on the train to Creepsville to being in downtown Creepsville and feeling like it was time to leave.  I’m pretty in touch with my Inner Goth and anticipated experiencing this show intellectually on a strictly art historical basis, but there is something heart wrenching and deeply human as people from myriad centuries and cultures struggle with the meaning, representation and impact of death.  Noelle thrives on morbid themes and was in total death enhanced bliss on our awesome art day.  I kind of also felt like there was some intentional public relations repetition of presenting the biography of Richard Harris as very serious art collector and scholar, and not, like,  a serial killer or weirdo.  Good call on that.  A friend asked me what the show was like, and I told her it was thematically consistent: the subject was on death, death and more death.  The collector stayed with the subject, and it sure wasn’t butterflies.

In all fairness, the Morbid Curiosity show does warn attendees that the subject matter may be difficult due to “explicit imagery that may be disturbing to younger or sensitive viewers”.  American culture wants and keeps death sanitized and held at arm’s length or further, and death is given minimal consideration.  Our dead are handled by gloved professionals, offered for brief consideration to the bereaved and promptly disposed of with burial or cremation.  Death is no longer intimate to us.  We are long past the era of washing and dressing our own dead; at best we may carry a coffin or stand beside it.  The Victorian pastime of cemeteries as park-like environments used for social gatherings of remembrance and picnics long after the internment of lost loved ones dissipated over time.  I once read that the Western culture has a tendency to worship that which we fear, the iconography or death and war supports this.  My unease and growing discomfort echoed all of these things. What was interesting to my own experience of the show is that the sheer density of the works related to death had the power to be sensitizing rather than desensitizing.

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