Art, Religion, Commerce, and Other Fickle Forms of Devotion

Posted by: Kevin Coyle


This post was curated from an article written by Mira Dayal for

Rachel Harrison‘s installation at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) traffics in expectations. The show’s name, Perth Amboy, is taken from that of the city in New Jersey where, in late September 2000, an apparition of the Virgin Mary was reported in a residential window and resulted in widespread media coverage as well as a veritable, if short-lived, pilgrimage. Through photographs, Harrison frames the fulfilled expectations of many faithful Perth Amboy visitors, and constructs a parallel — if less pressing — set of expectations for MoMA viewers, who must wander through her cardboard labyrinth wondering what other oddities and constellations of figures will be around the next bend.

Behind one such bend is a dejected heap of colored straws in neon pink, green, and black, apparently existing only for the sake of an arbitrary but colorful surprise. Though “Perth Amboy” (2001) fills the entire gallery space, its cardboard panels vary in height. The space does not feel claustrophobic, especially given that most panels are more like corners than walls, but a labyrinthine walk is still required of the viewer.

Wrapping around the walls of the gallery, Harrison’s photographs depict some of the hundreds of visitors to the Perth Amboy home, their disembodied hands appearing ghost-like against the revered windowpane. In muted lilac and periwinkle tones, the prints are lovely formally and, through the icon and boundary of the window, invoke spiritual or metaphorical spaces. The angle of the window reveals the photographer to be shooting from below, with a sort of reverential gaze upward, and also allows for the sky to be reflected in the glass. The resulting union of hand, heavens, and face is chilling, especially when the glare reveals the swarm of fingerprints from caresses past. The depth of worship and emotion in the series of photographs also contrasts nicely with the cheapness of cardboard; the mass-produced material is usually classified as a waste product, manufactured only to enclose more valued commodities.

Besides the Virgin Mary, other icons and idols appear in their own sorts of faux altars. Becky, Friend of Barbie, smiles gleefully from her wheelchair at a mural-sized (from her vantage point) print of an abandoned swimming pool. Marilyn Monroe, in bust form, casts a seductive eye at the cardboard wall opposite her from within a Stor-All box on the ground. These and other figurines nod at their respective communities of followers, admittedly smaller than the Virgin Mary’s. Harrison’s derision of these commercial figures seems to parallel the skepticism felt by some outside the Perth Amboy window.

Indeed, other arrangements in the room mock devotion. On one bright pink pedestal, a stereotypical carved Native American’s head stares at a sunset photograph perched on a miniature easel. Sunglasses rest candidly at his side. On another black pedestal, a ceramic “scholar” in a baby blue robe gazes intently at a large cement rock of the same color with a small but self-satisfied smile. His gaze and that of the Native American’s reflect the viewer’s gaze at Harrison’s installation, aptly teasing the viewer who takes her art too seriously. At the same time, Harrison’s work is anything but empty — it is deserving of the viewer’s gaze, weighing religious faith or even the contemplation of art against fickle commercial devotion.

The Formica pedestal supporting the scholar still has protective plastic film covering its four sides. Air bubbles and scratches punctuate its otherwise smooth surface, and in places it has been cut or is slightly peeled back. In this milky surface one can almost spot the Virgin Mary.

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