/David R. Harper — The Last to Win
/DAVID R. HARPER'S exhibition The Last to Win is an examination of the term “branding” and its subtext. Inspired by famous horses that in death have been mounted to epitomize their former glory, and by the use of the iron brand to mark their owners’ tenure. The Last to Win is both a tribute to, and a critque of, a peculiar cultural history.
Currently living and working in Nova Scotia, a NSCAD University graduate, David R. Harpers’ installations, which speak to the intersections of personal and universal mythologies, gender issues and identity, are notable for their skillful mix of embroidery, taxidermy, and woodworking.
With upcoming exhibitions in The Yukon, Ontario, Cape Breton, and Halifax, Harper most recently exhibited his work at the Dalhousie University Gallery’s exhibition “Exhaled Beings: Animal Relationships”, and was awarded the 2008 Mayor’s visual art award.
/THE LAST TO WIN
A horse is a horse, of course, unless that horse is Harper’s horse…
You don’t need to know the story of The Last to Win to be struck by its beauty. The life size horse is immediate, breathtaking, and touchable. One can almost catch a glimpse of muscles twitching under skin or feel its soft, hot breath. However, with closer scrutiny, its stitched seams and glass eyes betray that beauty, revealing a carefully constructed fiction.
This is where the story begins for this horse. With his work, David R. Harper domesticates and dissects the natural world. He brings the outside world in, as though through an open bedroom window. Bird, squirrel, and chipmunk creep in to join owl, beaver and black bear. Through sculpture and embroidery, Harper also brings the inside out: he shaves and peels back protective coverings to reveal softly stitched bones and organs. This embroidered branding and tattooing brings something new to these creatures. With a sense of reverence and care, Harper finds ways to celebrate the spirit of the animals he recreates.
Narrative creeps into Harper’s practice as he weaves stories and histories for his animals. The story is clear for the birds, mice, raccoons, and many other animals that inhabit the half-sized camping trailer he made for his installation When the Rain Comes. In impish pairs, these creatures await the flood, be it Biblical or the unrelenting encroachment of suburban sprawl onto their once-wild land. The artist’s awareness of the delicate balance between the natural world and human intervention adds to this narrative.
In Harper’s work, his passion for the wild unites synergistically with a keen interest in technique. His sculptures, even those small in scale, have weight and presence. His vision for The Last to Win was huge, both lofty and ambitious: a full-scale horse, crafted in the modest Artist-in-Residence studio at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, appropriately during the run of a Joe Fafard retrospective. Harper’s desire to create a horse of this stature predates the AGNS residency, although creating it within that context gave Harper license for a larger scale. Here, in the studio, visitors could just as easily have found Harper reading books on Victorian pet-keeping practices as they could have found him embroidering intricate patterns on cowhide. Technique is but one layer in a multilayered process that includes extensive research on the time and place from which he draws inspiration for his work.
This background research is part of what makes this sculpture so striking. David Harper’s inspiration for this work came out of his examination of four famous horses: Napoleon’s “Vizir,” Roy Rogers’ “Trigger,” “Comanche”—a cavalry survivor of The Battle of Little Bighorn, and “The General”—a Guinness Book world record holder for largest horse. Each horse has been mounted for display in museums, and all stand as legendary specimens because of the men who rode and owned them.
The Last to Win has no story—he’s not a real horse, of course, but rather a sculpted fabrication. Harper has stitched together pieces of cowhide over a styrofoam form, glued on glass eyes, styled synthetic hair, and moulded porcelain hooves to create a glorious fiction. Finally, Harper has branded the beast with his own stitched mark. His brand is luxurious: a Victorian crest that speaks of power, masculinity and delicacy in one sweeping statement. The chosen mark tells a story for this animal and sets the beast apart from its famous predecessors. This hybrid creature is offered up like a trophy, its beautiful embroidery marking certain triumph.
As a work of art, The Last to Win embodies choices and allows for multiple readings. Harper’s embroidery on an identifiably tamed and trained horse offers a vision that compels the viewer to ask how this beast fits into the canon of famous equines. What is the story, or who is the authority, that deems this animal worth preserving? Harper has created a metaphorical link to Vizir, Trigger, Comanche, and The General. In his stitched brand lies a created myth. Harper's sculpture becomes a larger symbol that embodies the humanizing character of a companion creature. As a fabrication, this sculpture is revealed for the ersatz reality it is, allowing us to reflect on the ways in which meanings and histories can be developed and invented over time, for any given object.
/SARAH FILLMORE is Curator of Exhibitions and Acting Chief Curator at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.