"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out." - Robert Frost, Mending Wall
"A lot of people in the world are on the move," observed internationally known, Ohio-based artist Don Harvey during the installation of his show Cities and Walls at Zygote Press. Harvey has spent much of his life making art that tackles the aesthetic contradictions of agricultural and industrial experience. At the same time, his hybrid sculptural installations use photography and steel (among a host of other materials) to look at environmental and population issues from a global perspective. "They're looking for money to finish that $8 billion hi-tech fence between Mexico and the southwestern states. Pakistan is reportedly working on a 10-foot-high, 3-foot-thick concrete barrier along its Iranian border. In India they're talking about putting up a 2,500-mile wall; they say it's to stop human and drug trafficking, but it could also be used to counter mass migrations from Bangladesh in a few years when flooding due to global warming gets worse."
The tall man pauses and looks down at the gallery floor for a moment, as if from a watchtower. "Number one: I have no belief that a wall is going to work the way its advocates hope. And number two: What a stupid way to live in the world! You have to live in the world in a fluid way …" Harvey knows something about adaptation. Selected by Zygote for this year's Artist in Residence program, the writer/painter/sculptor/activist, whose longtime base was the University of Akron, has continued to innovate through the four decades of his professional career. It's no mean trick to "keep the paint fresh," as author Joyce Cary's artist character Gully Jimson recommended in the novel and film The Horse's Mouth. But over the years Harvey has done that or the equivalent. Most of his works at Zygote are abstract monoprints produced with ink and a squeegee, layered with hands-on painting, silk-screen images and collage. The manner and the materials combine to express a sense of urgency, born of spontaneous gesture and reasoned response.
"Phantom Tower" looks like a grid composed of grainy black-and-white filmstrips. Each box-like section of the 24-by-16-inch monoprint is about an inch square and seems to show a tapering conical structure from slightly different angles, like photos taken from a low-flying aircraft. In fact it isn't anything like that. "It's just one of the delights of process," shrugs Harvey, who created the image by drawing a narrow implement over the inked plate in a series of lateral motions, then running the result on one of Zygote's etching presses. A silkscreen image of a red and yellow grid has been printed over the middle section of the work; a few small photographic cameos showing indistinct human figures against a murky gray-green background have been added as collage elements near the bottom.
Similar figures, clipped from a vigilante-style website that posts photos of illegal immigrants on the interne, are sprinkled in different media and configurations on several of Harvey's prints around the gallery In "Night Runners and Border Patrol," a number of such figures are sketched in white paint, running against vertical black and yellow squeegee stripes across the lower half of the print. The upper half is horizontally oriented, like a night sky in relation to the runners' dark earth, illuminated not by a moon or stars but by a painting of a police car pictured dead-on with all its lights ablaze. For "River Border and Busy Sky" the artist has painted a number of helicopters hovering against a yellow-striped sky streaked with gray. Beneath them, the black earth is divided by a vertical appliquéd strip of blue, narrowing as it heads toward the horizon. Harvey's images and sculptures over the past 20 years have often been constructed in this way, evoking a dialectical horizon across which contrasting substances, elements or ideas speak or quarrel, sparking an intense, very contemporary engagement.
The stripes that form the ground of most of the works in Cities and Walls unite them as a body of work, but they also vary strikingly in their range of evocations. In "Night Runners" they read almost as sounds, like sirens in the fugitive-filled darkness, while in "Phantom Tower" they seem more like a fast-moving series of discrete compartments. In "New City Rises," where the stripes are rendered in reddish ink overlaid with a crane-like diagram of clean, screen-printed white lines, they're reminiscent of the windows and shield-like balconies of a brutalist apartment building. In all of these images the time is night; the mood is one of hard transition and danger.
Added to this aura of suspense is an air of adventure, romance and hope in two prints titled "Migrating With the Muse: City of Dreams" and "Migration of the Muse: Headed East." Here, Harvey's thick black stripes curl across the creamy etching paper like long locks of hair or the stylized waves of traditional Chinese landscape painting. In the center of each, Harvey has collaged a 3-by-5-inch image of one of his own paintings, based on a news photo of a woman standing on a small raft. In the original context, the snapshot showed her crossing floodwaters in an Indonesian city, pushed by a young man or boy submerged in a foot or so of water. In Harvey's version, she could be anywhere, sheltering under a pale umbrella. The improbable figure wears an immaculate white dress and white high-heeled shoes. She carries a large white purse, maybe for a heavy day of shopping. Her remote expression, visible in profile, seems to contemplate a reality changed beyond any comprehension. "Headed East" shows this muse figure navigating the dragon-like swoops of black ink, while in "City of Dreams" she voyages toward a glittering silkscreen overlay of intersecting geometrical white, blue, yellow and orange lines, floating in the darkness like a vision of an ideal realm. These two scenes from a mythic journey, located at the rear of Zygote's two-room gallery space, emphasize the inevitable, eternal nature of human migration, suggesting that in the long run, no wall or fence, moat or natural boundary has ever been able to thwart change.