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Art and process: Herring’s Me Us Them at the Tang.

All in Pieces

By Meisha Rosenberg

Me Us Them: Oliver Herring

Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through June 14

That man over there? He might have existed once. His subtly shaded flesh looks so real, it invites touch. All his details hum with life: eyebrows, stubble, lips. Like a porcelain figure who’s been tapped with a hammer, he’s been fractured, but he hasn’t fallen totally apart; just enough so hundreds of hairline cracks show. In his nudity, he is solemn. He might be a relative of Frankenstein’s monster of imperfect creation. Though you may be tempted to ask him questions, he is not alive, and you can’t touch. Go ahead and look, though—he won’t bite.

His name is Wade, and he’s a life-sized sculpture made by Oliver Herring out of meticulously cut and reassembled photographs (even the amazingly life-like hair is made out of shredded prints). There are two versions of him here, and even if you arrive knowing what to expect, Wade 1 and Wade 2 (both 2006) are likely to make you do a double-take (and the dramatic overhead lighting does a fantastic job of heightening the spooky, wax-museum effect). The Wades join a similar sculpture of a woman, Gloria (2004), leaning on the wall of a clear enclosure, as well as an eagle sculpture that had me totally fooled; from a distance, I thought it was a mounted, taxidermied bird. But it, too, is made out of cut prints mounted on foam core.

Welcome to the simulacrum, Herring-style: He specializes in the double-take, the unscripted encounter, the cut-and-pieced-together. This survey of 15 years of work is an intriguing look at an artist who continues to push the boundaries of representation in seemingly unrelated media: stop-motion video, improvised performances, altered photographs, and knitted Mylar sculptures. Models he uses in videos are asked to enact instructions (Task, which he performed in Saratoga in March, asks volunteers to choose from an envelope of tasks). He is deeply concerned with gender, having been inspired by Ethyl Eichelberger, the drag performer. The portrait of Fran (2001) here exemplifies this—looking like a transgendered body builder, her red-colored skin has been sliced into segments so it appears three-dimensional when approached from the side. When you look at her straight on, the segments disappear.

While the work here is in some ways all over the map (and the video work and Mylar knits on the whole seemed weaker), images such as Fran and Wade with Cheryl’s Features (2007) are hauntingly memorable. And it’s instructive to view this work all together: Although Inside a Heap of Flowers (2002) is, for example, markedly different stylistically from Ladders 2 (2002), both photographs pose the human figure in alien settings.

So, too, with Shane after Hours of Spitting Food Dye Indoors and Chris after Hours of Spitting Food Dye Outdoors (both 2004)—color portraits of men after, yup, you guessed it, hours of spitting food dye. In these startling photos, the dye acts as both a sculptural and painterly element, emphasizing saturated creases, wrinkles and facial hair. The pigment is a provocation, one of Herring’s artifices meant to get at the truth. You might not think the same artist also did the video Joyce and David #2, of a singularly mismatched couple doing an awkwardly synchronized dance (and one of the more intriguing video pieces). This might be because Herring seems more invested in the staging of an artwork—the process—than he is in the outcome. And in general, this approach keeps things interesting. Like a circus ringmaster, Herring just keeps throwing things at people until the breaking point (in an interview with PBS he talks about “a point of saturation”)—as the amusing title of one photograph, The Day I Persuaded Two Brothers to Turn Their Backyard Into a Mud Pool (2004), attests.

In contrast to the absurdity of some scenarios, more recent images are striking, disturbing altered photographs: Cheryl (small) with gauze face and iridescent blades (2007) pastes photographic fragments of a face together with sinister images of metal blades. Stanzi/Silver and Iridescent (2008) similarly shows a person (man or woman, we can’t tell) wearing a conservative dress and pearls, their face covered by crinkled metallic paper with dark holes for eyes. Like the outstanding Wades and Gloria, these works have the psychological depth of nightmare.

Herring is a visual polymath, and through all he is concerned with the fragmentary, constructed nature of identity. What happens in the seconds when the camera is off? Who are we when we are alone, unguarded? Like the surrealists, who used randomness and associational processes to get through to the unconscious, Herring cuts photographs and uses spontaneous performance with strangers to try to answer these always intriguing questions.

Would You Like Fries With That?

American Color: Richard Garrison

Spencertown Academy Art Center, through May 24

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Dude, Where’s My Car? is when the main characters try to order Chinese “fooood” at a drive-thru. The transaction, which begins rather prosaically, devolves into a yelling match between a disembodied voice repeating “and then?” after each item is ordered and a very frustrated customer. Even after Ashton Kutcher’s character rips the drive-thru monitor apart, it continues to taunt him with the same refrain as his car speeds away.

For me, this scene reveals the crassness of American culture. Not only do we love our cars so much that we like to eat in them, but the food we crave is bland and generic. Apparently we are comforted by sameness. We like to be surrounded by the familiar colors of our favorite chain and to know exactly what’s on offer.

Despite its insipidness, Richard Garrison manages to find beauty in the drive-thru experience. In his current exhibition, American Color, Garrison both celebrates and critiques the banal aspects of American culture. For him, commerce is source material that he systematically reformulates into transcendent abstractions. The color palettes of drive-thrus, advertisements, and product packaging are transformed into geometric grids and designs.

The six Drive-Thru Color Scheme paintings included in the exhibition represent Starbucks, Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, and Burger King. Each are identified by location and date. Garrison explains that to make the grids he photographs all the structural elements of the drive-thru—ordering, purchasing, pick-up. Then, working from the bottom left corner of the paper, he paints strips of color that match the structural elements. The result is a grid of columns “determined by the relationship and color of each structural element.” What becomes clear is that your expectations don’t entirely match up with reality. The Starbucks palette, while minimal, shows far less green than might be expected. And the McDonald’s, which would seem to be predominantly yellows, browns, and reds, has quite a bit of blue. Ultimately, the results are both alluring and perplexing.

Garrison’s Weekly Ad Color Scheme series offers similar insights. These six paintings are at once humorous and sobering. Whereas the drive-thru series relies purely on color, these graphs include text. Not only are the paintings identified by store, dates, and page numbers that correspond to a flyer, but each individual row is labeled with an item and price range. Instead of color strips, these grids are made up of circles of varying sizes. Garrison looked at advertisement flyers from Toys “R” Us, Walgreen’s, Joann Fabric and Craft Stores, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Office Max, and Kmart. He explains that “a grid of dots would be made to correspond with the scale and order of each advertised image.” The size of the dot corresponds to the relative scale of the item pictured. What emerges is a snapshot of the hierarchy of what is for sale, in what season, and for how much. Most revealing were the surprising array of colors for snacks, candy, and medicines, as compared to the relatively limited palate for sporting goods. The predominance of pastels in office products was remarkable, as was the fact that someone might need to buy “dog training pants.”

Garrison’s portrait of our commercial environment is enhanced by his more intimate works titled Product Packaging. For these, he collected the cardboard from items purchased over the course of three months, from December 2008 to March 2009, from his own household. From these packages he cut out squares ranging in size from 1/8 inch to 1 1/2 inches that show only solid color without lettering. Garrison’s collages function as both color field abstractions and pixilated portraits of personal consumption.

Garrison’s talent for transforming the banal into the poetic is echoed in his Spirograph drawings. Made by using the tools of a children’s toy and ordinary Bic pens, these demonstrate Garrison’s interest in the systematic and the repetitive. While Garrison may be discomfited by sameness, he is clearly compelled by it. In this exhibition he explores the tension between the comfort of the familiar and the ubiquity of monoculture.

There is something fitting about having this exhibition in Spencertown, given its location. If you don’t notice it on your way there, you will most certainly notice on your return that much of the route is blissfully free of fast food chains and big box stores.

—Nadine Wasserman


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