Counterpoint: Man and nature at center of Aspen exhibit |

Counterpoint: Man and nature at center of Aspen exhibit

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy of the artists"Summer Arm," by Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, is part of an exhibit opening Friday at the David Floria Gallery in Aspen.

ASPEN – Depictions of man’s inhumanity toward nature surround us – not only in the newsmagazines and in international political conferences, but in the air (try breathing in Beijing) and even in the landscape of the Roaring Fork Valley (driving Highway 82 in the Bas-illits-ebel sprawl zone is not a pretty sight).

But in the work of artists Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, it’s an open question: Are the images, mainly photographs, warnings of what people are doing to their environment? Or are they celebrations of nature, and the beneficial impact the natural world can have on humankind?

How about both, and more. Robert ParkeHarrison and his wife Shana have been explicitly examining the interaction between man and nature – with technology also playing a part in the equation – for two decades. And if the work in their ongoing series, Counterpoint, is any indication, the two have yet to reach a definitive, specific conclusion about what is happening in the triangular relationship. The works contain notions of humor, beauty and transcendence mixed in with a sense that we might have moved past the tipping point in inflicting damage on Mother Earth. The series contains both floods and flowers, the grotesque but also signs of growth and appreciation.

“We’re not weighting the work in angst. It’s so easy to go that way,” the 41-year-old Robert said from his home in Great Barrington, a resort town in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains. “I think what we’re responding to is the fragility of nature, and of the imbalances we’re seeing, how nature is more and more in threat. But it’s not all sad. There is a celebration of the mystery of nature, transcendence, the sublime. It’s almost a hallucination of nature.”

Images from the Counterpoint series are featured in an exhibition opening Friday at the David Floria Gallery, with a reception at 6 p.m., the first showing of the ParkeHarrisons’ work in Aspen. The exhibition includes photographs and two painted archival inkjet prints mounted on Dibond, including one, “The Scribe,” created specially for the Aspen show.

On the transcendent side is the photo “Elegy,” an image of a pale-skinned woman and a group of butterflies in flight. The woman’s eyes are closed an her mouth is open, as if in a reverie. The background is a shade of green that suggests healthy, robust foliage. “Ascension” depicts a man – it is Robert ParkeHarrison; all of the persons in the work are Robert, Shana or their 12-year-old daughter – releasing a bird from his hands. The man has his head thrown back as if in prayer; the title, the heavenward flight of the bird and the pale blue sky reinforce a sense of ecstasy.

Not all of the images are so ecstatic. Several works feature a body floating in murky water, either in an outdoor setting, or, in one piece, in a flooded room, with a picture window that looks out on a heavy gray sky and one ominous cloud. In an example of pitch-black humor, one work has a diner buried, lifeless, under a mound of food.

Robert says it all begins with a Midwestern sensibility: He is from Missouri and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute; Shana (pronounced SHAH-neh) grew up in Tulsa and attended William Woods College in Missouri.

“That agricultural connection, being from the heartland … the Dust Bowl-era photos – our parents and grandparents are from that,” Robert said, his Midwest-friendly personality apparent. “And it’s not that way today. It’s Wal-Mart supercenters.”

But the images – in Counterpoint and the earlier series Architect’s Brother, which the couple worked on for over a decade – connect more to the rural past. “There’s this presence of landscape. And a feeling of space and openness,” said Robert, who says he is still feels the influence of the machinery on his grandfather’s farm. “That is so ingrained in us. Probably more in earlier work, where there are devices that help people re-connect to the environment.”

The ParkeHarrisons’ trail next leads through New Mexico, where the two met in the early ’90s at the University of New Mexico. Not only did the two discover one another, but also the work and philosophy of Joseph Beuys, the German artist who proclaimed the connections between art, philosophy and social participation. Robert said Beuys’ work showed them the healing potential and spiritual dimension of art, and became a major influence.

Robert said that he and Shana contribute different elements to the work. A former dancer, Shana provides the illusion of movement – flight, floating – that marks much of their art. “I don’t have that sensibility,” he said. “She’s always choreographing me.”

But in the emotional and philosophical realm, Robert said the two have a shared vision – to depict the battle royale between man, nature and technology, without succumbing to despair.

“We could be considered environmental artists,” Robert said. “But we could be artists from the Romantic period, how those artists connected to nature in a sublime and symbolic way.

“In our era technology and the destruction of nature is so much a part of our dialogue. But we try to do it in a way that doesn’t hit you over the head. We’re interested in an open-ended narrative – like you’re watching a moment in traction, how one moment floats into the next. It’s a fluid moment, and you’re catching a glimpse of it.”

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