The scrappy little gallery on Roebling named Like the Spice likes to take aesthetic chances, showing art that predominantly expresses a die-hard optimism that is both fresh and youthful. Its latest show, Flip, brings together two artists, Rachel Beach and Nora Herting, who are completely immersed in a world of decoration and design. While they share some commonalities, they diverge in their approach and success.
Beach is a sculptor who excels in fashioning art out of the seemingly superficial world of veneers, but shallow her objects are not. Herting shows two-dimensional work that seeks to do for cheerleaders what Warhol did for the soup can, fixating on them until they melt into metaphors for something else.
Herting photoshops images of perky teens performing their routines atop lavishly patterned fields incorporating female cheerleader silhouettes. It takes some warming up to, but Herting’s art is filled with enough optical gymnastics to make it worthwhile. The hazy edges of some of the foregrounded photographic elements create a sense of movement that steps away from the stark graphic sensibility characterizing the work.
If I had to point out one obvious weakness in Herting’s work, it is undoubtedly its scale. The majority of her work measures 20 × 24 inches, and at this size, the minute detail is overwhelmed by an ocean of strong lines and colors. Its use of acrylic ink provides a pleasant plastic-y sheen, but the flocking in the background reminded me of the wallpaper popular in Williamsburg area bars. “Spirit 08,” “Spirit 448” and “Spirit 300” (all 2007), which are among the most successful in the series, rely on stark cropping to accentuate the startling visual effects Herting seems to relish. Cheerleaders climb past the picture frame or hurl themselves into the cleverly crafted wallpaper.
If Herting seeks out the optically confrontational and boisterous, Beach has found a way to forge wood veneer into deeply personal—and incredibly varied—objects.
Three works—“The Big Top (Medallion)” (2008), “The Bather (Medallion)” (2007), and “The Rogue (Medallion)” (2008)—welcome the visitor near the entrance of the gallery. They form a perfect encapsulation of her craft since each is differentiated by its thickness, surface veneer (birch, cherry and maple, respectively) and shape.
Beach creates posh donut forms whose empty cores are accented by trompe l’oeil painting that presents a rich illusion of space. In these circular sculptures, there appears to be a correlation between the thickness of the hidden plywood armature and the illusionistic bands painted on the surface. From various angles, the painting appears to recede into the surface of the work. The exterior and interior shadows cast by the sculptures become an integral part of the composition. The light—both real and illusory—defines each object’s mood and temperament. The titles, shapes, woods, shadows, and painted elements document a complex artistic psychology. At certain points, clean cuts—created presumably with a fine saw—rip tiny lines across the inner surface of the donuts, rendering the painted elements ambiguous, as if they were consciously planned to mislead, like a mask.
“The Bather” has a larger interior opening that lends it an extra delicateness and vulnerability, revealing it as exposed and naked. “The Rogue” by contrast is bulky, thick and tough. “The Big Top” is the most playful, its shapes undulating across the surface like a ribbon through the air.
Off to the side of the gallery, there is a wall tightly hung with small works. The shadows cast by these intimate objects bulge far beyond the wood to create an ephemeral geometry on the wall. “The Vine” (2008) weds a whimsical right-angled shape and a furled finial with wenge wood and hot pink shading. “The Decade” (2007) is composed of a seemingly symmetrical maple shape framed by an orange embellishment that veers to the brown. In these forms, more than the others, the shadows nudge the shapes toward the fragmentary and allusive. Many of Beach’s shapes resemble familiar furniture forms or molding patterns but shy away from directly quoting any one source.
Why Beach chose donut forms and molding fragments is more interesting than Herting’s taste for cheerleaders. Herting’s pop art take on the most superficial of American pursuits is tantalizing but somehow falls short of its promise. The eye-straining visuals never delve deeper than the surface. Beach’s art is more pregnant with meaning. Her donut shapes allude to early feminist motifs, like Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers or Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party plates, by presenting a round female genital-like form that opens up from within. Added to that is the layer of meaning associated with home ornament and its love of luxurious woods and fine detailing, traditionally seen as male pursuits. The result is an unusual tension created by the allusions to traditional gender roles through their representation (the forms and materials) and their perception (the painting and shadows). This unconventional gender-bending invigorates the forms and makes them challenging in a way that eludes easy classification.
Maybe the title of the show, Flip, refers to the artists’ opposite approaches, or their embrace of the decorative, but it certainly doesn’t refer to their attitude towards their work. Then again maybe Herting and Beach demonstrate two varied solutions to the harnessing of design in the interest of art, which, as they say, can be two sides of the same coin.
Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail (April 2008)