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Art in orbit 

by Sheri Boggs

Robert Harrison stands in the middle of a landscape of his own making. He and an assistant tend to a stack of broken tiles, girded by reinforced steel fencing, watched over by four antique wood pillars with crowns of plaster and barbed wire. To the left, the pleasing asymmetry of an arch simultaneously brings to mind both a cave wall and the swirls of Van Gogh's "The Starry Night." While the name of Harrison's show at the Jundt Art Museum at Gonzaga University is "Celestial Navigations," the scene suggests more than anything, a terrestrial, post-apocalyptic sacred place where salvaged materials and classical sculpture hold equal sway.

Harrison's show opens Friday, and the gallery at the Jundt Art Museum has been divided to make a narrow corridor, which leads to the arch, stack and pillars. For the viewer, the effect will be a momentary pilgrimage down silent avenues to a place of light and reflection.

"One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to dissect the gallery space and challenge the viewer," says Harrison, who used to teach art at Gonzaga. "I'm always interested in creating a sort of a challenge to the viewer and setting up some kind of scenario, so that the viewer is led into a new space."

Harrison made the pieces -- some of which are up to 10 feet tall -- in his Helena, Mont., studio before installing them at the Jundt. His lifelong interests in architecture and archaeology imbue the pieces of the show with a mythic, romantic glow.

"Every space is different, and it's all about considering how to use the space with my kind of architectural, sculptural vocabulary," he says, adding that even the lighting has been considered as part of the exhibit. "On paper, it's one thing. Getting here and measuring it all out and getting a sense of the space is another thing. I'm making the work at home in my studio, which is one-third the size of this space. So everything is jammed in there, and I'm working from a mental picture of how these things will look when they have room to spread out."

The pieces in the show range from the large columns and arches of the installation to the smaller working models and wall-oriented sculptures that form what Harrison calls a "mid-career" retrospective of his work. His "Arch Study" series offers a handful of miniature "arch-scapes" in which his wildly fantastic arches exist in a ceramic environment of rock and wave.

"The arches began purely as studies," says Harrison. "As I made more and more, I began to fantasize about them, and they became sculptures in their own right."

Harrison has worked in various forms of ceramic art for most of his 30-year career, so it's not surprising to see bits of "traditional" ceramics in the flotsam and jetsam that emerge in the pieces in the show. In individual wall sculptures such as "Rococo Teacup Icon" and "Broadwater Divider: Starry Night Revisited," shards of cups and saucers and dime store ceramic ephemera are set in hand-manipulated plaster. In "Rococo Teacup Icon," the items are saucers, set in the plaster like bracket mushrooms; in "Broadwater Divider," you're as likely to see a ceramic frog pulling a serving dish as you are to see one of Harrison's own beautiful shell pieces.

"I use a lot of different materials. I enjoy collecting little oddball things I find in antique shops, which I then take home and put on a shelf in my studio. As you can imagine, my studio shelves are full of this stuff. Eventually they'll work their way into a piece, even if it takes two to six years."

"Broadwater Divider," it turns out, has a rich history, and not just from the found objects culled from the area's thrift stores.

"The doors are from a turn-of-the-century hotel called the Broadwater, outside of Helena," says Harrison. "They're about a hundred years old, and I rescued them. It's something I do periodically in my work, and it makes me feel good to do that. I'm recycling something, but an important aspect it brings to the work is that it has a history already."

Harrison filled in the window portion of the doors with his ceramic objects, which needed to be anchored in plaster. The spiraling forms and cosmic colors of the top third of the work are instantly familiar and are, Harrison admits, "a direct reference to Van Gogh's 'The Starry Night.' " The spiral is a symbol close to Harrison's work and heart.

"I taught at Gonzaga and had an exhibition here 20 years ago in the old Ad Gallery," says Harrison, whose current fascination with astronomy suffuses the show. "I used the cross or the X as one of my main symbols, but over the years I began to take on the spiral as this sort of life-affirming symbol. Everything is constantly in motion and generating upon itself and being born and dying. So it enters into my work a lot."

Other works in the show mirror the stacking, rectangular, functional joys of bricks. Harrison has done a number of commissioned pieces for various institutions using the humble brick, and his studies point to where his love for the brick began, at the Archie Bray Foundation near his home outside of Helena. The Archie Bray, once just a cluster of buildings on two acres of land next to a defunct brick factory, has taken over the factory and become one of the nation's most respected educational centers in the ceramic arts. Harrison is president of the board of directors this year, the 50th anniversary of the Archie Bray Foundation.

"It's the birthplace of contemporary American ceramics. It's the place; it's Mecca for ceramic artists, and it's the oldest residency ceramics program in the United States."

& & & lt;i & "Celestial Navigations," an exhibit of work by Robert Harrison, opens Friday, Jan. 19, at the Jundt Art Museum and shows through April 11. Artist reception: Feb. 1 at 6 pm at the Jundt Art Museum, followed by a lecture in the Jepson Center Auditorium at 7:30 pm. Call: 323-6611. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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