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David R. Harper’s post Animal Farm diaspora

By John Olsthoorn on May 22, 2014

The Ottawa Art Gallery’s Articulation: Critical art writing workshop series is intended to offer participants the support, skills, and editorial assistance they need to establish or expand their critical art writing practice. Each workshop is designed and led by a leading Canadian expert in the field of art. Participants learn hands-on from professionals who have an active writing practice, in a supportive day-long session. Apt613 is pleased to be publishing the best piece of writing from each of the workshops. This first piece followed Candice Hopkins’ workshop, “Criticism and the Art of Slow Looking.”

Post by John Olsthoorn

David R. Harper’s exhibit, “Entre le chien et le loup”, currently on display in two separate rooms at the Ottawa Art Gallery, is what a post Animal Farm diaspora could look like and that seems to be a thread of thought to stitch the works on display together. A stretch at best as the pieces seem disparate, as powerful, meticulous, confusing, and disturbing as they may be.

What is striking about A Fear of Unknown Origins (II), the wall of animal masks, is how all animals seem to be created equal. There are seventy-two of them, eight rows of nine. From left to right the masks go from a lighter to a darker blue, all similar sizes be it a cow, monkey, wolf, fox, pig, sheep or bull. But you get the sense standing at the other end of the room, between the two stuffed wolves, looking at the wall and the bone field in-between, that some animals are more equal than others. You just don’t know which ones. Napoleon, perhaps? Or is it those between the dog and the wolf?

Housing the works in two separate rooms drives home this point. Without the map and ‘list of works’ sheet provided by the OAG, you can easily miss the second room of Harper’s work. And that would be a shame. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to house these pieces closer to the main exhibit in the adjoining room?

David R. Harper, I Tried, and I Tried, and I Tried (II), 2013, giclée print on canvas, cotton embroidery floss. Photo courtesy of the artist.

David R. Harper, I Tried, and I Tried, and I Tried (II), 2013, giclée print on canvas, cotton embroidery floss. Photo courtesy of the artist.

At the opening of the exhibition in February, Harper explained the painstaking labour involved in the needlework incorporated into a number of the pieces. Some take months of time, each day, every day. Perfection of craft is at the heart of Harper’s art. The work involved, something created slowly by hand and mind over time like a fine meal made from scratch, takes time to prepare, minutes to devour. But unlike the meal, the art can be viewed quickly or you can linger and explore the depths of the pieces you instinctively know were created for the longer look.

What is not immediately clear, though, is why embroidery. Bonaparte’s horses are embroidered in both I and II of I Tried, and I Tried, and I Tried as are all the rabbits in Rhopos I – VIII and The Fall and Into the Fall. The latter two can be seen in the second room. Perhaps rabbits and horses are not created equal? If that is the case, neither are wolves, one black and one white, both of whom (yes whom in keeping with the Animal Farm thread) overlook the main room of Harper’s work. Life-size, the wolves are constructed of cow and sheep hide. They dominate the room and are frightful in a good way.

The sense that this exhibit resembles a post Animal Farm diaspora is driven home in the second room. The piece(s) Then We Are Lost Forever in the Gloaming has several pig heads on sticks, perhaps indicating that Napoleon has indeed fallen and all have dispersed, stuffed or otherwise, beast and man and fowl alike.

Having visited the exhibition several times, what to make of this collection is still unclear. The different pieces themselves are indeed stunning and worth the time it takes to look at each closely. While drawing on Orwell as a lens to see Harper’s work at the OAG can been seen as significant or trite, it does help frame the exhibition. The on-going conflict between man and animal, as separate entities and as one-and-the-same, remains unresolved. Harper underscores that tension. The exhibition runs until June 6, 2014.

The next workshop, led by Anna Khimasia, “What does It Mean to Be Critical?” will take place on Saturday, May 24. Registration is $40, students and members pay $32. Or, win one of two spots to participate in this workshop! Just send us an email to apartment613 [at] gmail [dot] com with “Articulation” in the subject header. We will draw two names on Friday, May 23 at noon.