Harry Gould Harvey IV’s new solo exhibition, ‘Sick Metal’ at P.P.O.W in New York, is his first with the gallery. Though rooted in the particular history of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the artist was reared, the artist transcends geography through the creation of systems governed by rich symbolic orders. Small framed drawings, red-wax sculptures, and sound and video installations are embellished with gothic details such as steeples and gargoyle-like creatures, ordering the airy, uncluttered gallery with intricate diagrammatic compositions that line its walls.
On the back wall of the main exhibition space, two large cross-shaped drawings frame Magneto Cloud Buster Broken Tub Thumper (2023), a column erected from five found vintage speakers topped with a red wax lion sprouting a radio antenna from its back. Activated via a button on the wall, the speakers play an ambient composition that cascades into the empty space at the centre of the gallery, mixing street noise, music, bird chirps and voice memos. Paired with video works in the next room that depict the artist walking through an urban landscape carrying a ladder, the sound and video installations are shrines to the ordinary.
At the same time, Harvey challenges the gatekeeping of canonization, elevating the prosaic into symbols of religious and aesthetic transcendence. The Phantasmagoric Ladder ( Status Qou ) (2023) canonizes Thomas Kennedy, an unacknowledged local hero of Fall River who lost his life in 1900 while climbing a ladder to connect the city’s electrical structure to the grid. The symbol of the ladder reappears in wall-hung, sculptural and video works in the exhibition, such as Garden (2023), a charcoal and coloured pencil drawing set into a wood, bronze and MDF frame that obliquely recalls a medieval Christian icon.
Meanwhile, the ethereal drawings upon the walls feel like windows into other worlds, marked by invented cosmologies and populated with a rotating cast of symbols and characters. Some allude to canonized religious figures such as Presupposition Of Saint Anne (2023). But that work also conjures the abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky via its colour palette, the dynamic relationship unfolding between the geometric forms, and its allusion to philosophical and spiritual concerns. Though inflected by Christian symbology or art history, William Blake seems to be the main guiding influence on Harvey’s practice. As in Blake’s visionary works that reflect upon the complexity of the human spirit in relation to the social, political and religious restraints of late 19th to 20th century England, ‘Sick Metal’ suggests that reality is created by interconnected fields – political, historical, religious and spiritual – within which symbols are reclaimed, discarded and salvaged.
Indeed, post-industrial Fall River is emblematically inscribed in each of the works, on both a symbolic and material level. The wood that frames the drawings comes from fallen trees from around the city; many of the materials used in sculptures are repurposed from old factories, churches or dilapidated buildings. Presupposition Of Saint Anne seems, in its depiction of a church engulfed in flames, to have been partly influenced by the burning down of Fall River’s Notre Dame de Lourdes in 1982. The city’s large Portuguese-American population is evoked in the Portuguese palindrome ‘Ame o Poema’ (‘love the poem’), which is inscribed on the frame of Garden and appears in the titles of two drawings, Ame O Poem and Ame O Poema (both 2023). The decline of the city’s industrial base is referenced in The Eschatological Artists Union 1111 - Post Labor (Illuminated), 2022. Harvey’s handicraft consists of building these historical and geographical references into his meticulously constructed works, creating a Blake-ian metaphysical realm that taps into a contemporary hunger for spirituality.