JTT Gallery, NYC
Reviewed by Michael Hilsman
Dan Herschlein’s current exhibition, “Safe as Houses,” at JTT Gallery in New York’s Lower East Side, consists of wall works, sculptures, and works on paper. Situated in the center of the gallery floor is a work titled The Tenant, which, like much of the sculptural work in the exhibition, is made from pigmented wood, plaster, and pigmented joint compound painted in thin washes of milk paint, a type of paint similar to casein and used by early American furniture makers.
The Tenant is a sculptural trompe-l’oeil depiction of a very used and abused lumpy armchair in which various parts of the chair begin to morph into the torso of an aging, out of shape male, leaving the viewer to wonder if the line between the armchair and it’s former occupant eventually disintegrated, leading two to became one. This begins a reciprocity in Herschlein’s work between object and figure where both fluidly interchange with each other in their role as receptacles for memory, experience, contemplation and empathy.
Though the press release refers to ideas of ‘trauma’ and ‘horror,’ much of the work in the show has an eerie familiarity that is inviting and almost cozy. The worn or used quality of the objects in question, the armchair for example, become endearing rather than abject. It is similar to the way in which New York city apartments have been occupied by so many people over so many years that the trauma or unresolved memories have all been washed away by a stream of unending inhabitation. It seems as if the work in “Safe as Houses,” is getting at this idea of erosion of memory.
There is an oddly religious hue to some of the work, in the way that many of the objects feel like reliquaries; fragile remnants housed in protective vessels. Mr. He-Who-Stands-At-The-Door-And-Knocks, reads almost as an open sarcophagus and in The Belt (whichmadeitworse), the charred black grate of the mailbox is reminiscent of the screen through which a priest hears confessional. From the two arms of the mailbox hang a dying or lifeless belt, which appears to be an inanimate Pietá if such thing could exist.
Herschlein’s work is striking because it employs a specific type of narrative figuration that is rarely used in contemporary sculpture, which has yet to catch up to the slew of contemporary figurative painters (see this year’s Whitney Biennial). After years of zombie formalism, post-minimalism, and process-based work, Herschlein’s sculpture feels surprisingly current given its somewhat traditional presentation. There are nods to important art of the last 50 years, most notably some undeniable Gober moments, but where Gober obsesses over meticulous craftsmanship, Herschlein allows interjections of readymades (a Home-Depot type stock sink faucet in Answer If You Can and an Ikea type glass in Table) which makes more sense for a millennial generation that doesn’t hesitate to appropriate, rehash, scavenge or sample. It lends a causality to the work that is absolutely fine.
We Found A Piece Of Your Mouth On The Ground,” he said (detail, right)
The show also includes several works on paper, seemingly dovetailing off the sculpture, which feature different figures and objects in a various domestic spaces. Many of these drawings, such as I Do The Same Things You Do, don’t quite do justice to the larger works as they seem to partake in a type of slapstick surrealism that is not as thoughtful as the rest of the work. The best drawings are actually the various black plaster belt sculptures that dot the exhibition installation. Alive and gestural, yet existing as static sculpture, they echo a kind of ab-ex mark making that activates the show.
Like some of the other sculptural wall work, “We Found A Piece Of Your Mouth On The Ground,” he said, plays with the language of formal painting by using a lifesize window as a framing device and a headless figure against a ground comprised of a blacked-out landscape of a white picket fence and trees. The arms of the figure jut out beyond the picture plain in offering of the figure’s own mouth. This Lynchian moment points to an overarching interest within Herschlein’s work in the idea of the dismembered self. This disconnection is less of the kind that reflects a culture of internet memes or rough jump cuts (of the kind Ryan Trecartin does so well) but an ancient alienation of the fractured human self. The difference here is that instead of dwelling on the fracture itself, it appears Herschlein invites us to put the fragments back together.
Michael Hilsman makes non-literal paintings of objects and figures that explore the absurdity, fragility, and latent spirituality of the human experience. His work has been exhibited in the U.S. and abroad and has been included in such periodicals as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Modern Painters, The Boston Globe, New American Paintings, Arte Mondadori, and Le Point.