Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison: Photography to inspire social change

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The art of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, opening for a two month run at the Center for Photography at Woodstock with a 6 p.m.-8 p.m. reception Saturday, November 5, at the 59 Tinker Street gallery, is instantly recognizable. The pieces are shorn down to narrative mysteries. They feel like stills from long lost films, with whole worlds of stories inherent in them. They fit well into the books that the couple produces regularly, or the major exhibits that pop up at top galleries and museums on an almost annual basis.

The ParkeHarrison’s, while still young in  years, are big time and iconic. The new show, which will be accompanied by a Q and A session with the artists, represents CPW executive director Hannah Frieser’s first indication of the new direction she’s taking the institution she’s been heading for nigh on a year now. It’s major, it’s inspirational; it focuses on single artists instead of the curating of new talents around au courant themes and ideas.

We recently asked the couple about their process, the ways in which their work is and should be seen, and why they feel it important to exhibit in Woodstock, engaging the CPW audience.

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“The development of our work draws upon many, many areas of research and interest. We are avid admirers of dance and theater. We research religion, mythology, history, politics, science, issues surrounding the environment, literature, art history and countless other pursuits,” they note, together, when asked about the surreal elements many file their work under. “It’s about being curious, filling the well, letting ideas co-mingle with seemingly unrelated ideas until finally all of these thoughts make their way into drawings, which is when the element of surrealism comes into play…When these drawings are developed into sets and props for photographs we allow ourselves the freedom to let chance play a role in the process.”

And what about the “bleakness” some have spoken about in their often monochromatic images?

“Bleakness is in the eye of the beholder,” comes the fast reply, noting how the couple works to always incorporate hope, as well. “When we lived and studied in New Mexico in the early 1990’s we became aware of and concerned for the environment. New Mexico’s incredibly fragile desert landscape, rich culture of Native American and Hispanic peoples and destructive presence of the U.S. government’s war machine (Los Alamos National Lab and the Trinity site) combined to provide us with an acute awareness regarding our deteriorating environment. As artists we wanted to explore the possibility of investigating issues surrounding Man’s relationship to the natural world. As avid admirers of the German artist Josef Beuys, we sought to create work that inspires social change.”

How do the ParkeHarrison’s work together? How do they come up with ideas?

Robert answered this one alone, explaining how the two met while he was studying photography at the Kansas City Art Institute and Shana was working for the college admissions office. Eventually they moved to New Mexico.

“I remember a specific moment when I was trying to stage a photograph and wanted to use myself as a model rather than direct other people. Shana noticed the difficulty I was having, trying to be both photographer and performer. She immediately took over the work behind the camera, not only to press the camera shutter, but also to direct and choreograph my positioning and gestures,” he recalled. “It was from that moment we both realized that we could go much further artistically by joining forces and collaborating rather than pursuing our separate work. Twenty-five years later we continue to work together — it’s a time intensive endeavor that involves multiple processes. Each series we create begins the same way — research, drawing, journaling, discussion. Then we go into building, staging, photographing and painting. Our work is a multi-disciplinary process. Our creative practice is slow and contemplative; it takes over a month to create one image. We enjoy the fact that our work evolves gradually over time. This is how we create work that is layered with meaning and interpretation. All images we create are made in a series; each image is interrelated and evolves into a visual intuitive narrative.”

So how should one see such carefully-constructed work? Is it enough to see pieces online, or even in the various books the couple has produced over their career?

“Online imagery is eye candy. Art is best experienced under the conditions set forth by the artist. Unfortunately that is not always possible,” the two reply. “Many of us have had the experience of ‘knowing’ a piece of art through books, online, merchandise and so forth, only to find ourselves profoundly moved when we experience the work in the flesh. Our work has a physicality that is part of the complete experience. We make objects, they are intended to be experienced. Making work involves going inside oneself in order to create another reality. Presenting that work allows the artist to share that alternate reality with others and to learn from others the deeper meanings found within the work.

Which brought us, finally, to this new exhibit, open through January 8, at the Center for Photography.

“CPW plays a vital role in the community and the region. Through its educational programming and support for creative and curious people, it has established a community of people who are passionate about exploring the world through photography,” noted the Saratoga-based couple, who have also shown locally in the past year at Columbia County’s The School galleries, owned and operated in Kinderhook by New York gallerist Jack Shainman. “We have been interested in and supportive of CPW for many years. And now we are pleased to be able to share our work with the CPW community.”

 

Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison will be on hand for the opening of their new exhibit of works at the Center for Photography at Woodstock on Saturday, November 5 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., with an artists’ talk starting at 7 p.m. The galleries are located at 59 Tinker Street; call 679-9957 or see www.cpw.org for more information.

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