One of the major functions of socially conscious art is to draw the observer’s attention to some inadequately considered aspect of life, forcing a closer examination, or re-examination, of the subject at hand. Carolyn Harper is up-front about achieving exactly this in her new solo exhibit, Look Me In the Eye: Portraits of Homelessness, at Muse Gallery.
“I create images of people or groups who have been marginalized, discriminated against, or abused,” Harper says in an artist statement. Her portraits “provide faces to those who are faceless, nameless and powerless. They are visible markers that shout out, ‘Look at me! See me!’ My hope is that you will see something of yourself in these images, for as Paul Klee wrote, ‘Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see’.”
Don’t look away
Harper’s work is fabric-based. It consists of large quilts, hand-embroidered batiks, and large hand-embroidered drawings. The pieces are oversized, averaging about 40 inches square, giving them a tapestry-like drama and impact. Her subjects are drawn from people living on the streets or in housing shelters. Many viewers who encounter people like Harper’s subjects in real life on the street scarcely notice them, or avert their gazes uncomfortably. These portraits don’t allow us to do that.
Harper’s style is direct and spare, even inelegant, perfectly fitting given its discomfort-inducing subject matter. The directness of her style imparts power to each piece, conveying the urgency of the subjects’ situation.
One of the most effective aspects of the portraits is how the artist draws our attention to the subjects’ eyes, and how effectively and potently the gallery-goer sees the desperation and hopelessness people experiencing homelessness live with on a daily basis. Harper tugs at our empathy.
Getting to know her subjects helps Harper in her process. Through conversation and active listening, she learns about the individual stories of these often overlooked and ignored community members. Her artist statement continues, “I have formed deep personal relationships with some of the people I have met. My hope is that the work will encourage others to do the same. We can see one another’s basic humanity regardless of background and differences.”
Harper’s work succeeds not by being pedantic, as socially aware art can sometimes be. She avoids the soapbox. She simply shows us an aspect of reality as she sees it. It’s an unpleasant, discomforting aspect for many, to be sure, but her portraits do not allow us to look away. The art doesn’t confront us, but makes us confront it. As Paul Klee might say, her art makes us see.
What, When, Where
Look Me In the Eye: Portraits of Homelessness. By Carolyn Harper. Through December 1, 2019 at Muse Gallery, 52 N. 2nd Street. (215) 627-5310 or musegalleryphiladelphia.com.