David R. Harper

Toronto

David K. Harper: Entre le chien et le loup (installation view at Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto, 2013). Images courtesy Doris McCarthy Gallery, TorontoDavid R. Harper: Entre le chien et le loup (installation view at Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto, 2013). Images courtesy Doris McCarthy Gallery, Toronto.

By Morgan Mavis

David R. Harper
Doris McCarthy Gallery
February 6 - April 6, 2013

The work in Harper’s Entre le chien et le loup stitches together ceramics, taxidermy and embroidery, resulting in a seamless solo show. Harper is far from a one-trick pony; his work has evolved from enigmatic taxidermy bears, horses and embroidered hides to a place of complex and darkly haunting enchantment. "Entre le chien et le loup" is a turn of phrase for the time of day called “the gloaming”, when a dog is indistinguishable from a wolf. In this work, Harper departs from the mimesis of life present in his previous solo shows. The goal of a taxidermist is to produce a veil of illusion, where the hand of the artist has been removed, leaving no trace, and what the viewer sees is a dream of arresting age and beauty, stilled life.

Upon entering the space’s east gallery, the viewer is captivated and drawn to Remind, or to Warn (all works 2012), a monumental installation of two wolves, one light and one dark, that stand frozen and powerful atop mausoleum-like plinths. These animal amalgamations of cowhide, sheep hide and polyethylene are a departure from the hyperrealism of The Last to Win (2010), an imposing sculpture of a taxidermy horse with intricate embroidery on its flanks. The wolves are evocative of mythic beasts or figureheads of a distant regime. The gallery’s lighting casts pronounced shadows on the three surrounding walls, echoing the ritualistic undertones.

Fear of Unknown Origin: David K. Harper: Fear of Unknown Origin (2012). Vitreous china, cobalt mason stain, glaze, dimensions variable.David R. Harper: Fear of Unknown Origin (2012). Vitreous china, cobalt mason stain, glaze, dimensions variable.The east gallery displays the three most exemplary works in the exhibition. A Fear of Unknown Origins (II) is a blue to ombre gradient of 35 ceramic casts of novelty animal masks mounted on the wall in a grid. This gradient is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, reiterating the transition from good to evil, familiar to unknown. The masks are a further departure from realism: mass culture’s representations of nature; culture once again disguising itself as nature; friend or foe? The use of the mask is a nod to ritual and disguise, the space in between recognition and ambiguity. Harper’s transformation of disposable masks into objects with a rich material presence is subtle, only apparent upon close investigation. On the opposite wall, I Tried, and I Tried, and I Tried combines a gradient of eight different tones of grey exquisitely embroidered on a canvas print of Napoleon Crossing The Alps by Jacques-Louis David. The delicate work is behind glass, which, though a conservator’s dream, is a bit of a visual barrier between the viewer and Harper’s immaculate tone-on-tone embellishment of the horse. Harper references specimen, trophy and monument; his past works have explored portraiture and how taxidermy, much like a portrait, elevates, immortalizes and transforms the subject. We can see some of the same tropes here, but with a deeper materiality and complexity.

For a west-centric Torontonian like me, traveling to the far east reaches of the city felt like a far-flung expedition, but Harper’s work transported me even further; into a realm between what is known and the unknowable.

Harper’s Entre le chien et le loup tours to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Kenderdine Art Gallery in Saskatoon, and Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in Halifax throughout 2013-14.