Tombs and Treasures: William Harper at CIA

Treasure Cask for Trickster Beads, William Harper, Sept. 12, 2018
Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Initially, William Harper’s new exhibit at the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Reinberger Gallery evokes the inner chambers of a pyramid wherein magnificent treasures languish in wait for their pharaoh and his concubines to arrive in the afterlife. It’s not by accident.

“I wanted it to look like a tomb,” Harper says of the exhibit The Beautiful and the Grotesque. To that end, the deeply toned walls (freshly painted with “Black Swan” for the occasion) provide striking contrast to gleaming enamels and heavy strands of gold beads.

“Were they done 2,000 years ago or were they done yesterday?” poses the ’67 CIA and CWRU grad of his work. He’s got a point. It’s hard to tell.

William Harper, Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The descriptors in the associated catalog‘s table of contents are mundane (books, self-portraits, paintings), but the work is a complete surprise at every turn, at once telling tales while remaining mysterious amid a thick layer of sardonic humor. “Atlantis Jewel” might evoke a solid gold depiction of R2D2 for some, while “Self Portrait Of The Artist With A Migraine,” belies that personal agony amid nine inches of gold, aluminum, and pearls. His work also waxes naughty. “Dubu Boner,” a brooch from the Royal Dubu series (inspired by Jean Dubuffet), features cloisonné enamel, gold, silver, brown diamonds, and a baculum, perhaps for authenticity. The raccoon penis bone is one of the artist’s go-to supplies.

William Harper, Faberge’s Ashanti Beads

“I think all marsupials have them,” says Harper of the innocent looking component, noting that he purchases them at Evolution in his current home city of New York. “It’s got any kind of specimen you can think of,” he adds, immediately answering the inevitable question about the numerous butterflies, insects, bones and eggs in his collages: Yes, they are all real.

“There is nothing that is endangered,” he says, adding ominously, ” … yet.”

William Harper, L’Enfant Medusa, Photo by Bruce Gilbert

And if a mere mortal were to affix, say, “Flotsam II” to her bodice, she would immediately transform into a goddess.

“The person who wears it is the center of the universe at that moment,” says Harper of the elaborate brooch, which includes cloisonné enamel, gold, silver, pearls and gemstones frozen in orbit around an aluminum disc that previously sealed a coffee can. As for which components are beautiful and which are grotesque, that’s anyone’s guess, but the result is good to the last drop and then some.

William Harper, Reliquary Cask for the Archangel Michael, Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Everything in the exhibit is much larger and compelling than images can relay no matter how high the resolution or expensive the screen (the “Flotsam II” brooch measures 6.75 x 7.25 inches). The assertion applies doubly to the Treasure Boxes and Casks, each of which is elaborately crafted to house just one piece of Harper’s jewelry.

“I started making the treasure boxes so they didn’t have to put them in a drawer,” he says, which is a humble impetus for such exalted receptacles. “L’Enfant Medusa One and Two,” are towering conglomerations of shells, ostrich eggs, metal, plastic, more of those baculums (for the Medusa tendrils), and creepy babydoll heads. They house “Saintly Tomb Jewel” and “The Last Royal Dubu, Ever,” respectively.

William Harper, Tom Box with Armored Tomb, Photo by Bruce Gilbert

To reveal “Psyche’s Brooch, A Gift From The Sea,” Harper opens “Atlantis Cask I.” As the lid tilts upward, tiny seed pearls cascade over a leafy insect specimen inside a glass chamber. Chains and nails impart a steampunk feel. Dence clusters of little bottles introduce a miniature component to the lids of “Glass Gardens Casks I and II,” but what are they? Remains from the vials of Demerol Harper injected to alleviate the aforementioned headaches.

“I saved all the tops,” he says, adding that the migraines, conversely (and mercifully), are gone. The “Gardens” boxes house “Tomb Jewel I” and “Tomb Jewel II,” respectively. The boxes’ eclectic composition makes viewing them feel like being in on a secret.

Harper’s books are a world away from boring tomes opened to feature pages on display pedestals. Instead, these are substantial layered panels that each fold accordion-style into their own box. At first blush, the images are reminiscent of leaves from the Wenceslas Bible. Content from “Page of Saints Volumes I and II,” however, is more irreverent than any medieval Germanic translators could imagine. A schoolmaster is stabbed to death with iron writing pens by his own charges, while Saint Moses the Black is “made white” courtesy of a snowy frock and a bishop’s blessing. Moses decries the transformation. “Only outside. I am still black within.” Also: baptisms in one’s own blood.

William Harper, The Royal Dubu

Exploration of another folded book, “Caravaggio’s Closet” (tucked into its own gallery of sorts in the back of the space), delivers more of the unexpected.

“It’s a porn book,” says Harper of his 1998 effort. To that end, it’s brimming with pudenda, erotic activity, and a host of phalli. Harper cannot contain himself as he muses over one panel featuring a particularly stout and willing member. “It’s really a selfie but I had to reduce it for the purposes of the book.”

We’ll forego verification on that quote, but Harper does confide that his husband Bill and ex-wife Riva are best friends.

“They talk on the phone about me,” says the Bucyrus, Ohio, native. He also has two brothers, one son, and one daughter, all of whom will attend the opening reception.

How does one translate meticulous enamels, a palette of metals and empty Demerol vials to creations inspired by the Akan art of West Africa, Jasper Johns, Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, and Cy Twombly?

“I just steal from every culture that ever existed and readily admit it,” says the artist. “I call it Harperizing.”

And while a verb is gloriously born, visitors to this unexpected show will call it a singular delight.



William Harper: The Beautiful & the Grotesque

Reinberger Gallery, Cleveland Institute of Art

April 4 — June 14, 2019

Free and open to the public

Opening Reception 6-8 pm Thursday, April 4


Lunch on Fridays: William Harper

Friday, April 5, 12:15 – 1:30 p.m.

CIA, Peter B. Lewis Theater

Free and open to the public.


A full color 112-page catalog of the show is available for purchase.


Further reading: Oral history interview with William Harper, January 2004, for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.