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Paul Harris

American, b. 1925

Ruth Williams Resting

Wood, burlap, and cotton
41 x 72 x 26 in. (104.14 x 182.88 x 66.04 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

Bay Area figurative school artist Paul Harris is best known for his life-size sculptures of women interacting with furniture that he made by stuffing and stitching fabrics by hand. Created from the 1960s through the early 1970s, these sculptures are characteristically whimsical and theatrically staged, with the women posed in the midst of performing an action or gesture.

In this series Harris provided viewers with opportunities for open-ended interpretation. He started by presenting two points of reference, paradox and continuity, and believed that a resolution of these aspects can result in a plausible explanation of what one is seeing. Harris also considered color to be an important clue to the meaning of each sculpture, aiding interpretation while also identifying the work as an aesthetic object.

In Ruth Williams Resting, the paradoxical element is found in the material, since recognition of the sewn cloth establishes the artificiality of the representation, a realization reinforced by the absence of facial features and anatomical details. Continuity, by contrast, emerges in the naturalistic scale of the figure and the chaise longue, and in the placement of something that looks like a real piece of furniture on the floor.

In an art historical context, Ruth Williams Resting may be considered a playful parody of the traditional odalisque, which in the twentieth century was a frequent subject for Henri Matisse. While Harris’s figure is featureless and posed casually, like the reclining female nudes depicted in Matisse’s bronzes, the ornamental patterning of the furniture recalls the decorative wallpaper and fabrics that appear in so many of the modern master’s paintings.

David S. Rubin

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