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Beautiful Ugly Violence

The Brutality of the Everyday

Beautiful Ugly Violence, Margaret Harrison's newest body of work, is the result of her recent residence and collaboration with Intersection for the Arts and is on display through May 8. A pioneer of British feminism, Margaret Harrison's first solo exhibit in 1971 was shut down by British police who deemed the work, particularly an image of Hugh Hefner as a near-nude Playboy bunny girl, "offensive". Her work has continued with a fierce (and, obviously, often funny) feminist critique ever since.

However, with Beautiful Ugly Violence Harrison takes on the grave subject of women as victims of violence and for this work necessarily sheds her satirical tactics. The female subjects that she has imaged for decades- the cosmetic counter salesgirls in the series Perfumed Politics and Cosmetic Bodies, the Girl in the McDonald's Restaurant and the manifold Marilyn Monroe's, all rendered in airy watercolor- are conspicuously absent from this show. Harrison observes that contemporary audiences are "pity-fatigued" from the excessive spectacle of violence, and so determines to expose her subject's anguish without perpetuating the image of the bloody victim.

Instead of imaging the bloody victim, or for that matter the bloody aggressor, Harrison isolates instruments of violence in a suite of nine 26" x 26" paintings and lavishes them not with her usual watercolor but with the more tenacious medium of oil paint. Arranged atop rich velvet drapery and ornate rugs, the portraits of weapons, a gun and knife, as well as everyday appliances like a teakettle and telephone, are deceptively composed and unblemished. Their uniform size and balanced presentation further conceal their dangerous potential.

In another series of works, Harrison revisits and expounds on a singularly resonant piece she created in 1977 entitled Rape. Mixed media collages on huge squares of butcher paper are grouped by themes such as "Acquiescence," and, again, "Rape". The crude compositions, consisting of fragmented drawings, headings written in highlighter pen, pasted-on objects, and Scotch-taped news clippings conjure an amateur science fair project. The didactic display though only makes the global news accounts and statistics, amassed by Harrison from six months worth of newspapers and Amnesty International reports, more troubling in their repetitious detail of atrocities done to women. Some of the text is in the small font of a detached journalistic voice; other text is magnified- the screaming, sobbing first-person accounts of the victims and witnesses.

These women's collective outcry is answered by a few small works on paper in which interviews with recovering abusers are transcribed over washed out watercolor images. Their words of powerlessness, fear, regret, and, in some cases, their own experiences as victims of violence offer some sense of redemption. Rather than demonizing the abusers, Harrison struggles with her audience to understand the societal and ideological ills that lead these men to wield these weapons against these women.

By allowing printed words and innocuous, beautifully painted weapons to stand in for the horror of violence against women, Harrison demands an attentive audience. A piece entitled Rape no longer shocks audiences the way it did in the 1970's, but that does not mean the issues have subsided. In fact, it may be that Harrison's work is more valuable now than ever; for with Beautiful Ugly Violence, her work extends beyond the uninformed audience to the harder-to-reach, numb, indeed "pity-fatigued" audience that we are.

March 3-May 8
Beautiful Ugly Violence
By Margaret Harrison

At Intersection for the Arts
446 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 626-2787
Gallery hours: Wed-Sat 12-5pm
www.theintersection.org