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Frame by Frame

‘Jack Lemmon’ is frivolous, irrational, and hard to ignore

“Jack Lemmon” by Rachel Harrison.

I’m very fond of this sculpture. It feels like the inside of my brain while watching TV at 8:58 p.m. on a Wednesday. And that, when you think about it, is quite a feat for a sculpture.

The work is called “Jack Lemmon,” and it was made last year by Rachel Harrison, a brilliant artist in her mid-40s who lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y. It’s on display in the permanent collection galleries at the Institute of Contemporary Art, on long-term loan from the benefactor Barbara Lee.

“Jack Lemmon” does everything you could ask of a sculpture, and more. It shows a recognizable figure. It’s deliriously colorful. And it has a whole array of careful — but not neurotically careful; in fact, rather delightfully insouciant — formal tensions: rhyming horizontals, a certain off-kilter lean to the left, a jaunty sense of movement.


“Jack Lemmon” by Rachel Harrison.

It also boasts — and here’s where things get really good — an idiotically grinning Dick Cheney rubber mask, a nylon Puma tracksuit, a pair of reflective sunglasses, and a big, abstract blob of colorfully painted cement.

Can I explain it to you?

Can I explain the inside of my head? Or, more to the point, of Rachel Harrison’s head?

Of course not. But admitting as much sounds too much like an abdication of my critical duties. Let’s just say, then, that I like the sheer and stubborn irrationality of Harrison’s sculptures (Harvard Art Museums, by the way, has a splendid one called “I’m With Stupid.”)

Nothing about “Jack Lemmon” makes sense, or even tries to make sense. And yet its construction is deceptively artful, and its presence, artful or otherwise, simply blasts away everything else in the room.

Of course, it also draws a laugh. But its wit is frivolous, it’s cheap. A plastic lemon in a fishing net held by “Jack Lemmon”? Whatever chortle the pun elicits dies instantly in your throat.


And yet the yellow of both lemon and tracksuit gives the whole ensemble a fizzy vivacity, which is reinforced by the inane dazzle of the Cheney/Lemmon grin and the equally dazzling sunglasses.

Adding to the madness, if you walk around the work you’ll find that the Cheney mask is matched, Janus-like, by a glamorous young woman’s face on the other side. The whole thing is nifty, natty — and totally batty.

But what about that big cement blob that constitutes, by mass, well over half the sculpture, its surface encrusted with a riot of artificial colors?

Amazingly, and despite its adamant blobbiness, it does a respectable job of competing with the elaborate “human interest” of the neighboring Cheney/Lemmon mannequin.

And that maybe tells us something (though surely nothing very important): Things can get our attention for all sorts of random reasons. But they can also get our attention — and take possession of large segments of our brains — for no reason at all.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at