CAMBRIDGE — With his unsettling sculptural do the job, Matthew Angelo Harrison aims for so several conceptual bull’s-eyes at once that he runs the risk of staying a minimal much too on the nose. “Robota,” his solo exhibition at the MIT Record Visible Arts Middle, consists of a combined bag of objects — carved wooden African masks and figures automobile pieces manufacturing facility employee accoutrement like tricky hats and gloves — solid in thick transparent blocks of resin, building them eerily lush and smooth.
They are uniformly conflicting, equivalent sections seductive elegance and ominous threat, nevertheless the items that use African objects have a very clear-eyed particularity. Collectively, they call out a century’s truly worth of ethnographic museum show that concurrently fetishized and sterilized their significance. For a long time, museums encased a great number of objects in vitrines as lifeless relics of colonial pillage — tradition, securely below glass — a observe Harrison pushes to a suffocating severe. Glance closely, and you’ll see bubbles along their tough surfaces, air trapped as although a last breath, flash-frozen in put.
The gesture is particularly useless-on when Harrison works in a dig to large Modernism. “Celestial Tower,” a stack of fingery wood combs encased in a obvious resin tower. The work is a jab at the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, a single of the progenitors of the patronizing Modernist idea of primitivism, an early 20th-century strategy that imagined the aesthetics of tribal cultures as pure and unsullied by the taint of modernity.
Brancusi’s “Infinite Column,” a stack of blocks tapered at top and base and initial produced of wood (there are now many iterations), may well be primitivism’s most enduring symbol, a simplified form he meant as an emblem of human aesthetics at their most durably standard.
Harrison’s substance response, unmistakably deadening, is elegant critique, beating Brancusi at his have chilly formalist match. Not content material to enable it lie, the artist has carved into the block with a mechanical router, gouging so deep in places as to expose uncooked wooden. I wondered if this was gilding the lily. The gesture cranks somber, implicit disdain — at colonial violence, and the blithe display screen of its plunder — into explicit rage. How a lot is far too a great deal? Harrison doesn’t draw that line, succumbing, possibly, to visceral sensation, a person piece to the following.
Not each and every get the job done right here is as unbound. Harrison normally chooses to immediate your gaze by obscuring selected vantage details: “Echoic Sections,” 2021, a slender picket mask hanging suspended in its resin jail, is ridged on four of its six sides, presenting a obvious look at only from possibly stop two sides of “Fields to Burrow,” 2021, are fitted with the knobby floor of an outsize Lego block, forcing you to see the woman picket figure inside in profile only. These operates, and other people like them here, elicit a hyper-recognition of the structures that have often privileged a certain perspective, informed by the dynamic of winner and loser, conqueror and conquered.
Other performs speedy-forward as a result of record, connecting earlier plunder to its corollary in present-day 20th-century capitalism. Harrison, a Detroit indigenous, labored as a clay modeler for the Ford Motor Business till his burgeoning artwork vocation afforded him very early retirement from the field (he’s in his early 30s). That would make him intimate both equally with creation engineering and the typically-fractious realm of labor relations. Resin-trapped posters for labor actions by the United Automobile Personnel are often joined by large do the job gloves individual blocks element hardhats.
The will work share an ethic of blunt dehumanization with the African pieces. The express strategy — of structured labor and workers’ legal rights as entombed relics, victims of article-industrial overall economy — is blunt and resonant amid the really hard slog of current union initiatives at new-economy behemoths this kind of as Amazon and Starbucks. (Harrison has routered into several of these functions, as well, a by-hand gesture in the context of the automotive marketplace, an early adopter of replacing human personnel with robots.)
The artist takes particular goal at Tesla, encasing headlights from a Design X in resin blocks tinted a shadowy around-black (“Wraith,” 2021). The connection is straightforward, and chilling: Harrison appears to be like from relics of an unsightly earlier to a darkening foreseeable future, ruled by overlords like labor-antagonizing, Twitter-grandstanding Tesla CEO and billionaire Elon Musk. Satisfy the new manager. Identical as the old manager. Just worse.
MATTHEW ANGELO HARRISON: ROBOTA
At MIT Checklist Visual Arts Heart, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, by July 24. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu