‘I Like Pushing Against Taste’: Artist Andy Harman on Why He Turns Scrunchies and Cheetos Into Sublime Sculptures
He's gone from high fashion to high art. But there are some mighty fine sculptures underneath the orange cloud of cheese dust.
Cheerios. Cheetos. Scrunchies. That list sounds like what someone might find between their sofa cushions. But it’s actually the jumping-off point for Andy Harman’s oddly arresting debut sculpture show that opened on Friday at Lauren Powell Projects in Los Angeles.
Part haywire Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style immersive environment, and part gritty, hip gallery show, “Leave This Like That Over There” runs through November 25. It’s chock full of ideas (and a lot of orange).
Harman has redone the gallery’s interior to mimic his raw Dumbo, Brooklyn studio, down to paint-splattered light switches and holes in the walls. It’s the perfect industrial backdrop for his oversized takes on American detritus. Tube socks, sneakers, and the occasional car door deftly adorn the sculptures.
“They’re ecstatically loitering,” Harman says of the giant Cheetos leaning against the wall. The exhibition is altogether more goofy and cool than chic, because he gets enough of that at his day job. Harman is one of the leading set designers in fashion. His ad clients have included Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, and Celine, and he’s worked with about every style publication out there. But whether it’s sculpture or set design, Harman’s work incorporates a witty and astute take on consumerism (as well as a much more personal slant than is evident at first glance).
Art is no lark for Harman, who hales from Troy, Ohio, and earned an MFA from Yale in 1997. He’s just had a very long journey since first studying sculpture as an undergrad, and then heeding the siren song of working as a janitor. The custodial arts of course segued into fashion. All the while, he kept producing work (most of which is now locked away in storage).
“He likes to push rules to the edge,” says the photographer Roe Ethridge, who has collaborated with Harman for a dozen years and is a similar fashion industry outlier/insider.
“Art can be anything, but fashion has to do something, sell something. The challenge was to navigate that boundary and make something communicative in a language that is somewhat hard to articulate—that f*cks with the system, but is also part of the system,” Ethridge says of working with Harman. “It’s like sitting in the back row at church and gossiping while the pastor does the sermon, somehow getting away with it. But I guess the big goal is to kick the image can down the road.”
But don’t expect to see models vamping around Harman’s sculptures as a fashion shoot backdrop. “No, they’re not allowed to have it,” he says. “This is my world and I’m going to keep it that way. I love the collaboration of photos, but I need to have my own thing.”
Last month, we sat down with Harman in his Brooklyn studio, as he was packing up his sculptures to send them to Los Angeles.
So, let’s dive into these sculptures. The tufts in this one look like pubic hair, huh?
Of course you would say that. Gay people react differently to that one, saying it’s armpit or pubic hair—which is what it’s supposed to look like. These are all scrunchies. I have this thing about rubber bands – I think they’re amazing. They’re impulsive and limitless, but totally temporary. They’re utilitarian and they hold stuff together. Scrunchies are just a baroque version of them. They’re decorated. But definitely, you get into the idea of the queer body and fringe and motion.
When did hair scrunchies start to resonate with you in your art?
I’m a little bit of a fabric whore, and look, I’m in the fashion world and a little bit of my angle is the clothing and how it’s made. I get excited about fabric and the way that it hangs and moves. So, the scrunchy just sort of went right in there. The yellow one I just finished yesterday.
Tell me about the Cheetos. They really connect to childhood.
I certainly have a little bit of nostalgia. And I mean, they’re delicious. I like the orange powder. It’s cheese—but it’s not real cheese. But really, I like the way they look. They’re Brutalist. They refer to a lot of sculpture. They kind of came about all at once because I go to fabric stores all the time, I’m always digging around and I knew that I liked the formal qualities of a Cheeto and the irregularity of them. I thought: “Maybe I’ll upholster them because I’m good with upholstery.” And then: “Oh, orange velvet! Wait! Crushed velvet is way more vulgar.” It’s really gnarly. But they’re so optical, the highlights are really kind of sexy—but they’re terrible, you know? I like pushing against taste.
Do you find your fashion work has informed your art?
I do. Using props to instigate, to get people moving. It’s like working with photographers like Roe Ethridge or Danielle Levitt, people that were involved in contemporary culture. We’re always pushing against the boundaries of, what is the perfect Chanel piece? What is considered the perfect fashion moment? And with people like them, consciously going after it and seeing how it sits in the world in a different way, rather than some idealized American Vogue moment—more of the Chanel bag on your walk of shame on the deli counter next to your coffee that you have to get because you’re so hungover. That vibe. That’s more where I am and why I love them both.
Fashion shoots capture idealized perfection when there is total chaos happening all around the set and stylists’ clipping the backs of clothes to make them fit better.
That’s the perfection that me and Roe, in particular, have always pushed against. To drag a cardboard dehumidifier box and have some chick in Balenciaga sitting on it. The old Nicolas Ghesquire Balenciaga, not the new Balenciaga, because of course they would do that because that’s their vernacular. But old Balenciaga is a totally different beast. If you put it on that box, it feels different. They bounce off of each other.
That’s what’s going on with a lot of this work, with the tennis shoes and the paper towels and all the stuff that’s shoved in the Cheerios—this juxtaposition of still life and absurdity.
Some of your collection of fake food is scattered around your studio and you sculpt junk food.
I think it has to do with being from the Midwest. It has to do with being chubby. It has to do with comfort. I don’t say it’s nostalgic. I think it’s definitely more of what I’m used to and it’s funny to me to be immersed in this rarefied fashion world, which is just the opposite from the Midwest—but then, so is the art world. I’m not using this stuff as some statement against it. This is all adoration. This is what I know. It’s how I speak. I don’t want to turn my back and make it completely negative and critical, as is the tendency with a lot of art world rhetoric.
I went to Kent State for seven glorious years. I had an English class I only went to once and that was to turn in my paper on the Eagles’ Hotel California. I was in architecture, then industrial design, then I did graphic design, and then my last year I took sculpture.
What was your student art like?
At Kent State I did these inflatables based on driver-side airbags and they were made out of garbage bags because I was a janitor. So, it’s not dissimilar. I’ve always used my day-to-day experience to inform the rest of my work. They were post-minimal even though I didn’t know what that was at the time.
I moved to Las Vegas after I graduated. I did not want to be in New York. I just didn’t see myself that way. And I had read Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, and I moved to be part of it. I thought: “Well, I’ll just go there and see what that’s like.
I was a janitor at Westward, Ho, the last remaining motel on the strip. It wasn’t kid-friendly then. The year I moved there was when they blew up the dunes to build Treasure Island. I was a janitor for years and years. It’s so weird. And then when I got to Yale, I thought, “I can’t work like that. I have to focus because it’s really expensive and I’ve only got two years.”
How did you start being a set designer after your MFA?
Some of the people I went to school with at Yale were doing that. When I first moved to New York, I did two or three jobs and I thought, “Oh, this is not my scene.” But I enjoyed it. I liked the production and all that fashion fantasy and all the clothes and the models and I was super starstruck by it in a way. But I was broke. I worked in a carpentry shop for a few years, butch like that I guess.
Then I did some Bergdorf-Goodman windows and then started doing photo shoots. I just started hanging around and people I knew were photographers like Danielle Levitt. We started out and did 69 shoots in a year. That’s a lot of shoots, and it’s a lovely number, but yeah, we both broke our teeth on that.
Tell me about the fuzzy zigzags on the walls.
They’re kind of like feather boa doodles. I did a bunch of these that’ll be at the show. Kind of old drag queen nonsense. They look like graffiti, but not some sort of aggressive mark-making.
I guess your scrunchies are kind of masc.
They’re not shrieking femininity.
I see some pieces that incorporate apple boxes, dollies, and other tools one sees on a photo shoot.
It’s all part of the same vernacular. There was always this point of trying to separate the worlds. In the 90s, acknowledging fashion was always sort of a bad move for art. But I’m like, f*ck it—like I can’t deny what I do and how I arrived here. I got to the party. That’s all I’ve got to say. I may be super late, but I’m here.
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