Riverwoods’ art collector shows works on death at Chicago Cultural Center
‘Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection’
Jan.28-July 8, opening reception 5:30-7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27
4th Floor Exhibit Hall and Sidney R. Yates Gallery, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
Updated: January 24, 2012 9:05PM
You’d think that an exhibit called “Morbid Curiosity,” which consists of over 800 artworks addressing different artists’ visions of death, would be depressing. Instead, the Richard Harris Collection, on display at the Chicago Cultural Center, offers a fascinating window into a subject most of us dread but all of us will face. Every piece in the exhibit is interesting and many of them are remarkable.
The Riverwoods resident who amassed this significant collection also defies expectations. He is a warm, charming man, with a bright smile, and a positive attitude about both life and death.
Harris, who is mostly retired from his career as a wholesale antique dealer serving the high-end interior design community, has been collecting art for over 40 years but it is only in the last dozen that his focus has been art related to death.
“This is my third collection,” Harris noted. “At 74, this is much more appropriate. The germ started when I was selling my Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse collection at Maastricht in the Netherlands, a great art fair there. There was a booth there that dealt with death and the iconography of death. I thought it was a wonderful new thing that I hadn’t seen ever before.”
Looking for grim
That inspired Harris to start collecting artwork emblazoned with skulls, skeletons and other images of death. His fascination with the subject continues.
On the entrance wall to the “Morbid Curiosity” exhibit, hangs a 25-foot by 10-foot piece called “Death March” by Hugo Crosthwaite. “This is an example of my own curiosity,” said Harris. He saw a small sampling of the artist’s murals in “Art in America” magazine and commissioned him to create the work, “setting the tone of the whole collection,” Harris said.
The exhibit is divided into two sections. “War Room,” in the 4th floor Exhibit Hall, includes five print series, ranging from works by 17th century artist Jacques Callot to pieces by Sandow Birk about the Iraq War. Also featured are works by Francisco Goya, Otto Dix, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. The many other works in this room include printed envelopes, postage stamps, comic books and other war-related art.
The Sidney R. Yates Gallery has been turned into a “Kunstkammer of Death.”
“Kunstkammer is the 17th century precursor of art museums,” Harris explained. “These were private individuals, royalty or very wealthy men, who collected objects of nature and fine works of art and dedicated rooms in their homes or buildings to show the results of their searches.”
Harris is pleased with the way his collection works in the Yates Gallery. “There isn’t a more perfect room,” he said, praising the gallery’s “Italianate flavor. The room is so apt for the collecting of objects and the placement of objects.”
Harris noted that his Kunstkammer room “represents death in a very personal way.” That includes an altarpiece and other artworks dedicated to the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration.
Still to come when we visited the exhibit were Guerra de la Paz’s large-scale installation, “Tribute,” huge piles of colorful used clothing commemorating the Holocaust.
Another significant piece that hadn’t yet been installed is a 13-foot-high chandelier, by British artist Jodie Carey, made of 3,000 handcrafted plaster bones.
“The beauty of the collection,” Harris said, “is the fact that it contains ephemera, vernacular photographs, works of local artists, regional artists, world famous artists. It isn’t a trophy collection. There are wonderful artists out there who aren’t recognized to the level that they ought to be.”
Harris offered high praise for the seamless manner in which the exhibit has been curated by Lucas Antony Cowan and Debra L. Purden of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture’s Visual Arts Department.
This is the first time that more than a small portion of this collection has been shown. “It’s a dream come true to have it here in the Cultural Center in the City of Chicago,” Harris said. “There’s a likelihood that I’ll never have 14,000-square-feet of space to do this again.”