Review of “The Quiet Life” at The Butcher’s Daughter Gallery
Walking into “The Quiet Life,” a solo exhibition of Canadian artist David R. Harper’s multimedia work that opened last week at The Butcher’s Daughter Gallery in Ferndale, feels like entering the home of an eccentric 19th Century biology enthusiast. The color is predominantly white, not cold, antiseptic white, but the white of god-light, the kind you imagine existing in parlors where Enlightenment values and ideas volleyed back and forth, and even the teapots and doilies seemed to be working toward something greater than themselves.
Harper’s chosen media in “The Quiet Life” are embroidery, taxidermy, and ceramics; genteel and requiring great delicacy of hand to accomplish, painstakingly slow in their execution. The result is a collection of two and three dimensional still-lives, as Harper designates them. He pointed out to me that taxidermy is a method of “stilling life” for us to examine and gain understanding. It’s a human practice with a long and complex history often unexamined by artists who use it in their work for novel or ironic reasons. Stuffed animals function as trophies, specimens of study and home décor. The very oddity of this practice finds a home in Harper’s work. The Megalos, one of Harper’s three dimensional still-lives, arranges a group of dainty ceramic urns around the sprawling form of a snow-white sloth-like creature (really made from cowhide). Delicately hued stuffed birds are placed atop stacks of thick books with seemingly random lists of words printed on their covers in The Bblio I-IV. Though the stuffed animals are, by definition, morbid, there is nothing grim or depressing about them. Rather, these assemblages have a light touch about them, a weird mixture of scientific and spiritual reverence respects the life these forms once housed, and what the remains still have to teach us. It’s an approach to death that doesn’t exist anymore, from back when people lived much closer to it in their daily lives, when hair lockets and other memento mori weren’t creepy. It’s new light shed on a frame of mind that might help us today.
Harper’s embroidered pieces carry the same sense of enlightened death. When Sickness Came, We Learned A Lot About Ourselves and Equal Amounts About One Another, a white skull covered in decorative swirls of blues from the heart of a glacier and whose title might best sum up what Harper is exploring, is the best example of his light touch with death. Using media with long traditions of refined, domestic exploration of the greater mysteries, he ushers a little pre-modern light into this neon-seared world.