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He's out to save a world of his own making

By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / September 19, 2004

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See Robert ParkeHarrison attempting to catch and bottle a cloud that has dropped into a crater surrounded by desiccated land. See him crouching atop a makeshift pedestal, his head replaced by barren tree branches, poised to take off and fly. See him holding two bouquets of birds, another attempt at leaving the planet.

The planet ParkeHarrison is so desperate to exit is exhausted, its natural resources spent. The primary sign of life is ParkeHarrison himself, whose modus operandi is to be photographed in postapocalyptic settings he's engineered, acting as an Everyman who is the last man on Earth.

So it's no surprise that ParkeHarrison, 36, grew up in an age increasingly aware of a threatened environment reflected in his new show, "The Architect's Brother," at the DeCordova in Lincoln. His first solo museum exhibition, it was organized by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y., and toured to the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego and the City Museum in Jena, Germany.

Now it's come home, relatively speaking. ParkeHarrison lives in the Berkshires and commutes to Worcester to teach photography at the College of the Holy Cross. His DeCordova show, which covers the years 1993 to 2001, is complemented by more recent work now at the Bernard Toale Gallery in the South End.

ParkeHarrison's work is surreal and dreamlike, a composite of elements and events that couldn't possibly go together, achieved through laborious cutting and pasting, involving numerous media combined to create an illusion of seamless reality.

Although he drew and painted while growing up in the Midwest, ParkeHarrison didn't study photography until he went to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he also met his wife and collaborator, Shana ParkeHarrison. Graduate school at the University of New Mexico followed. There, he says, "we became interested in Native American rituals and their connection to the land. My interest in the environment is spiritual, not activist. We try not to be overly preachy or direct." Hence his images of a mysterious place where nothing at all will grow, where there is no water, where there is no indication of what century it is, where he himself is the last remaining hope. The "Architect" in the title of his show is God, and ParkeHarrison is his earthly emissary.

From the beginning, "my work was staged and surreal," he says, "and explored the use of myself as a subject. Eventually the work turned into a narrative." In the DeCordova show, the chapters of the story are "Exhausted Globe," "Industrial Landscapes," "Promisedland," "Earth Elegies," and "Kingdom." ParkeHarrison is the protagonist in all of them, a Don Quixote in rickety armor, out to save the world.

Whether he succeeds is deliberately left undecided in the work, which is wistful, witty, and wry. In "Edison's Light," for instance, he's riding a makeshift unicycle and wearing metal headgear that turns him into a human lightning rod. He's cycling toward a stroke of lightning in the distance, hoping to arrive in time to harness its electric power.

Each of his shots is a carefully staged scene that takes weeks to create. The fanciful props are endearingly shoddy and look about to fall apart. They're all made from found objects.

The influences in his work include not only other artists -- Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer -- but Thomas Edison, George Orwell, and that greatest of polymaths, Leonardo da Vinci.

ParkeHarrison is almost as solitary in his life as he is in his work. He used to live in Worcester, but "there were too many neighbors," he says. Now he resides on five acres in Great Barrington, surrounded by fields, with hardly a soul in sight. He sometimes uses his own land as the setting for his end-of-the-world scenarios, but, he says, "we have this issue with trees. There's this lushness on our own property. We're always on the lookout for land that's uglier than our own."

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