An array of art from Michael Harrington
Eclectic new work by Michael Harrington opens Saturday at Resin in Hermosa Beach
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Michael Harrington has an idea. Then he has another idea. Then he finds a way to combine them and the result is something offbeat, possibly profound, and certainly thought-provoking. We’ll see the fruits of his artistic endeavors beginning Saturday, when “Michael Harrington: New Work” opens at 6 p.m. with a reception at Resin in Hermosa Beach.
Many roads, many adventures
Harrington is, in his own words, “a product of the Manhattan Beach public school system.” He began his educational climb in elementary school and finished it at Mira Costa, graduating in 1983. “I have such fond memories of growing up in Manhattan Beach and playing volleyball with my friends in seventh and eighth grade and surfing and junior lifeguard and AYSO soccer, all of that.”
But then he left for Washington, D.C., where he attended Georgetown University and double-majored in finance and international management.
Harrington then moved to Hong Kong for two-and-a-half years where he worked as an equities analyst. After returning to the U.S., he considered attending business school in France but found himself stalling until “one day I figured out that I really didn’t want to go to business school just for the sake of going to business school.”
Thus, a reboot was in order and, realizing he wanted to try his hand at something creative, he flew to New York to visit a friend who happened to be in acting school. “And he said, You know, they have a summer acting program; if you want to come and do the acting program for the summer you could.”
He could, and he did. Packing everything he owned into two duffel bags, Harrington moved to New York.
First, he took the summer program, and after this a two-year program. “Then I did another year in New York where I acted in plays and readings, and bartended. Like all starving young actors do.”
And finally, going it alone
When he returned to the South Bay, Harrington was 30 years old. Apparently, the acting (and the bartending) stayed behind in the Big Apple. So what did he do next? He began working in production and post-production on industrial films, many of them for car companies like Nissan and Toyota. And then, he says, “I decided what I wanted to do was to be a director. So I directed a couple of small things, and [while] I was on a job in San Francisco a producer came up to me and said, ‘Hey, we have another client and they need some video directed. Do you know any video directors?’ And I said, Yeah, I’m a video director.
“It was a comedy video,” Harrington says of that initial engagement. “And I directed probably 25 videos for that client over 15 years.” Comedy shoots became one of his specialties, and this included films for tech companies that wanted their executives portrayed in a more humanizing manner, where a sense of humor could be conveyed without the person seeming silly or ridiculous. And eventually, over the course of his directing career, Harrington figures he completed maybe 50 to 60 comedy videos, as well as over 100 that were not comedy (or at least not intended as such).
Now, looking back as an artist and a photographer, Harrington realizes that “I was really hungry for knowledge of cameras and lighting and figuring out what makes a shot look pretty. I was lucky to work with very talented people who would answer all of my questions or, if I had ideas that might deviate from what they were used to doing, they would really listen to me and say, I see where you’re going, this is why it’ll work or why it won’t work.
“What ended up happening,” Harrington continues, “was I wanted to do something more creative and more artistic. To do that in video takes a lot of people; it’s a very collaborative effort.” He’d been there, done that, and what he realized was that many of his ideas “were better served by me doing it as a still photo project than in video form.” Furthermore, this way, there’d be no crews to contend with, and his vision would not be hampered by some client or producer or someone else calling the shots.
And that, pretty much, is the backstory that leads us to the show at Resin on Saturday.
Someone walking into the gallery without having carefully read this article (hard to imagine, I realize) may think they’ve chanced upon a group show, and that’s because there are several components to it. We’ll start with the projections.
“I have this thing about the alleys in Hermosa,” Harrington says. “The alleys have their own vibe to them. We see so many photographs of American homes and they’re from the front and it’s the idyllic version of it. And the alley is like the darker side of it.”
At first, Harrington thought about doing a series of photographs, just shots of Hermosa’s various alleys. Then he thought about projecting phrases onto buildings, garages, etc., and snapping pictures of them.
He ended up mounting a projector onto the roof of his car, running it off the cigarette lighter, and with a friend behind the steering wheel Harrington took photos as they stealthily made their way through Bayview Drive and the industrial parts of Cypress Avenue. So, what was projected? Various phrases that Harrington had overheard in the course of day-to-day living and also some personal, succinct thoughts. The hoped-for goal is that the viewer, simultaneously seeing the image and the phrase projected across it, will be able to imagine a narrative born of the two.
After making one pass, and photographing with a still camera, Harrington and his buddy came back around and this time the projection was captured on video. As the car moved, so did the phrases, the words crawling along from building to building. And, depending on the proximity of each wall or surface, “you get some really cool effects. That was one of the most exciting things when I was making that series.”
Both the video and photographs will be on view. Photographs you can walk around?
Sure to be among the highlights of the show are Harrington’s Millennial Action Figures. This is a series of what appear to be statuettes of young men and women taking selfies or checking their cell phones for messages. “They’re all involved with their phones somehow,” Harrington says, and thus the title.
But looks are deceiving, and these aren’t statuettes at all. Rather, they’re an extension of photography. So listen closely.
“I have a lone model hold a pose,” the artist explains. “Then we go around them with an iPad and a wide-angle lens and some software, and it creates a three-dimensional file of the person standing there. The scans take about two or three minutes (the person keeping very still), and then you take that file and put it into the computer. The scan will miss certain things but you can go in and clean it up. Then you send those files to a 3D printer.
“The 3D printer is an additive process and so it just does layers. The big statues are 14 inches tall, and those take about 10 to 12 hours to print. You can only print 12 inches at a time, so they’re printed in half and then glued together.”
The revelation for the viewer comes when they learn that the Millennial Action Figures are not sculptured but rather the result of 3D printing from a photograph, although in this case the word “photograph” might well deserve a category all its own.
And of course one has to ask, is Michael Harrington making a social comment with this work?
“Yeah, I suppose so. Sure,” he replies, laughing. “Look, I think we’re all, myself included, somewhat addicted to our phones and to social networks, to the demise of some of our relationships. I have nephews who are 15 and 12 and so they’re net natives; they grew up this way, whereas we grew up with no computers. I didn’t have a computer at college. We had a computer center.”
Flying high, but looking down
“I just love airplane shadows,” Harrington says, directing my attention to several still photographs where, thousands of feet below, a silhouette-like image of a jetliner seems pasted flat against the landscape. “When I get on a plane I try to get a seat on the window in front of the wings so that I can get some of these [images].”
The black and white photo takes up about two-thirds of the print, the rest of it a colorful set of striations, always a hot color like orange, pink, or red. It adds something, although I couldn’t tell you definitely what, to each work. But the reason for this stark contrast is because of a technological mishap.
“I love the fact that it’s kind of like a mistake,” Harrington says. A chance event, perhaps, that he saw as a meaningful coincidence, and then he ran with it.
There’s a video for the airplane shadow series as well, and it depicts, in slow motion, an airplane shadow crawling up and over buildings as Harrington lands in Las Vegas. He’s quick to point out similarities between this video and the projection of phrases across the structures of Hermosa’s alleyways.
And then there’s a more somber aspect to consider.
“The airplane shadow is a little bit like death,” he adds. “Somewhere in the universe there is a shadow, my death shadow, flying, and at some point in time it will come to me being my actual shadow. And that will be the day I die. I think that’s one of the reasons why I like these shadows; they’re just a little bit of a reminder.”
They’re reminiscent of birds, too, in particular the raven, presaging death as we see in Van Gogh’s last painting, out in the wheatfields, or in “Götterdämmerung,” the final opera in Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelungen.”
“A lot of them are my friends’ daughters,” Harrington explains, “and most of them are 15, 16, and 17 years old.” The pictures are fairly straightforward, nothing to raise one’s eyebrows over, just teenage girls looking natural for the camera.
“Whenever I’m making portraits for families or myself,” Harrington continues, “I like to think, are they going to look at this photo in 10 or 20 years and say, This is who she was at the time? Did he really capture who she was when she was 15 years old?
“One of the interesting things about doing this show is that I tend to have all of these different ideas for series that I want to do, and they’re all like children: You have a love for all of them. So I’ll be really, really excited when all of the prints come in and everything gets up on the wall, to see how it all works out.”
It’s hard to imagine that it won’t be a show people will be talking about for a long time to come.
Michael Harrington: Recent Work opens Saturday with a reception at 6 p.m. in Resin, 618 Cypress Drive, Hermosa Beach. Through March 10. More at michaelharrington.com. ER