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Escape Artist

Photographer ParkeHarrison lives in a land of make-believe

LINCOLN -- The man is poised precariously on the top of a barren tree, its dessicated roots smothered by concrete rubble. Knees bent, chin up, he's prepared to fly -- if only those huge homemade wings will carry him.

Then he tries to mend a fissure in the earth by stitching it together with a giant needle threaded with rope. Then he approaches a sooty cloud with bucket and ladder, to clean it, or plants electric bulbs in rows of mounded soil to create a nocturnal garden, or builds a jetty out into the sea, one plank at a time. Then he constructs a windmill-like contraption and casts himself as a Don Quixote.

The man in all these images is the photographer Robert ParkeHarrison, playing the part of the ever-hopeful Everyman. He and his wife, Shana, collaborate on complex theatrical scenes of a lone figure trying to save -- or escape -- a doomed planet.

His work is in the tradition of make-believe photography that followed shortly on the heels of the mid-19th-century invention of the medium itself, a tradition that includes the Shakespearean dress-up scenes of Julia Margaret Cameron and, locally, the scenes concocted by F. Holland Day, who reenacted the crucifixion in his Norwood backyard.

ParkeHarrision is the most intriguing Massachusetts-based photographer to come along since Abelardo Morell, who also has a penchant for make-believe, albeit of a different strain. (Both are represented by the same high-profile New York gallery, Bonni Benrubi.)

ParkeHarrison's first solo museum show is now at the DeCordova, but, significantly, its organizer was the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. He's gone beyond the ''regional" category covered by the DeCordova and earned international recognition. The career of this 33-year-old photographer who lives in the Berkshires and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester is securely launched with this show, which has a long tour through the United States and a stop in Germany.

The poignancy of that picture of him trying to flee a crumbling planet is part of what has gained ParkeHarrison recognition. It sends an alarm, but the message is poetic rather than polemical.

His images are hazy black and white, or sepia-toned, which create a sense of distance from the viewer. This earnest fellow in the ill-fitting suit seems very far away. The atmospheric blur surrounding him adds to the romance of the pictures but also hints at soot, dust, polluted air, and clouds that refuse to open up and rain on the parched earth. ''Breathing Machine," from ParkeHarrison's 1998 ''Promisedland" series, is a sad confirmation of the last-gasp status of his world. The machine is a Rube Goldberg construction of wheels, tubes, a mini-smokestack, and a glass vessel with a maple leaf trapped inside, one of the few signs of life in these images of a place where nothing grows. The machine sits on the suffocating artist's chest, while his hands reach up and clutch it, trying to get it to work.

ParkeHarrison's narratives capture the middle of the story. He shows us neither beginning nor end, just the suspenseful central section when he's in high gear. While the outcome is missing, somehow you know what it is: He will fail, and be the equivalent of Icarus, flying only to fall.

The DeCordova has recently acquired a ParkeHarrison called ''Procession." It features five images of the photographer, all dangling from cloudlike parachutes, or perhaps they're parachutelike clouds. He deals in ambiguity. In a couple of versions he peers down at earth through what appear to be hugely exaggerated multilens binoculars. Each incarnation of him holds a thick, serpentine rope that ends in a hook, as he plays the part of a heavenly hunter, an update of Renaissance paintings of angels in the line of duty.

His art has progressed. In some of the earlier photographs you can tell what you're looking at, how the shot was set up. In ''The Flight," for instance, he squats on a ramshackle platform, a thing of splinters and ragged edges. He faces away from us, as he does in many of his works, a position that makes him anonymous and emphasizes the universality of his desires. His outstretched arms, pretending to be wings, are topped by scrawny twigs. The subject -- a man trying to leave a dying planet -- is wrenching. The composition is beautifully balanced, the spread of arms and twigs at the top of the image echoed in the tilting boards that bolster the platform at the bottom.

Such easy identification of materials and means isn't always possible. In the more complex works -- which tend to be the later ones -- he appears to actually fly, and also to levitate on a floating mattress, and climb a ladder that brings him above the clouds, to peer through a sextantlike device as if determined to find heaven.

Endlessness is among his favorite effects. The horizon line is often so deep in the image it seems impossible to reach it. In ''Burn Season," for instance, ParkeHarrison plays a firefighter rushing toward a horizon filled with flames, wearing giant teardrops on the back of his suit.

Repetition is another favorite. In ''Garden of Selves" cardboard boxes cover the earth, and the artist is in every one, generally curled up in a fetal position, hiding from a reality too harsh to bear. One of his ''Selves," though, is brave enough to rise and look into the distance -- where there is nothing but more boxes.

Much of Parke-Harrison's work is elegiac. And he is so alone, even when accompanied by multiples of himself. He never looks in our direction, never acknowledges that there might be another stray soul left on the planet. Sometimes, for comfort and company, he makes music on nonsense instruments. You can almost hear it, just as you can almost smell the dirty air around him and taste the last precious drops of water he drinks as if it were the wine in the rite of Communion.

His work also has a goofy side, best represented by ''Cloudburst," an homage to water. He stands in profile, eyes shut, engulfed in headgear that sprouts, among other things, a fish aimed at a glass of water and a balloon filled with liquid, about to burst courtesy of the sharp object sticking out of his mouth. He's got a pail waiting for the climactic moment. The congested assortment of zany props brings to mind the hysterical half-hour film classic ''The Way Things Go," in which Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss use the contents of their studio to set up a 100-foot chain reaction among unlikely objects.

How did they do that? is the standard reaction to to ParkeHarrison's work. How do he and his wife create all these physically impossible effects? It's not at all clear.

It can be, though, if you visit the ''Process Room" at the DeCordova, where journals, drawings, props, costumes, and evidence of influences from Magritte to Meredith Monk go a long way toward demystification. You learn, for instance, that those giant teardrops on ParkeHarrison's suit are just a bunch of plastic bags filled with water. But do you really want to know?

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