Los Angeles

George Herms

George Herms has explored many different media over the years—painting, sculpture, collage, performance, photography, and poetry—but he is perhaps best known for his assemblages. Like the Surrealist object poets (particularly André Breton), Herms is able to combine elements of strict formalism, appropriated language, and random placement to create works that appear self-contained, even inevitable, yet also part of a broader program that is completely personal and often quite illogical. His inventive recycling of discarded junk makes one initially think of artists such as Ed Kienholz and Joseph Cornell, but Herms’ sensibility is actually quite different. He more closely resembles a Beat Generation poet playing postbop jazz, not with a saxophone or trumpet, but with a visual system of signs that is equal parts metaphor, mysticism, and pure abstraction.

His latest exhibition was an unsentimental homage to his friend and mentor the late Wallace Berman. Berman was a West Coast assemblagist/poet who taught that the inherent mystery within objects could be brought out through the power and energy of language. Appropriately enough, the show’s centerpiece was called The Berman Peace, 1985, a large agglomeration of found bric-a-brac that was formally anchored by an old desk turned on its side. With its connotations of work and learning, its labyrinth of drawers and compartments, this weathered piece of furniture became a loose metaphor for the poet himself, part foundation and part container for the creative act. Herms muddied this picture, however, by piling on objects and allusions that transcended the fetishistic or artifactual. A rusted oil drum, a large lightbulb covered by a felt hat, an old pair of shoes, art catalogues from earlier Berman exhibits, and Herms’ familiar “LOVE” logo might have added to the totemic whole, but they also retained their status as autonomous objects. As one moved closer, the piece broke down into a series of independent formalist tropes, regrouping into a coherent narrative only as one moved away But the deconstructive damage had already been done. Herms’ juxtaposition of objects is clearly less concerned with creating obvious metaphoric dialectics than with stressing each object’s autonomous role within a complex system of signs that defies rational analysis.

The accompanying wall sculptures and freestanding works, with their linguistic and visual puns and their almost mannerist sense of formal composition, also played upon this contradiction between the familiar and the abstruse. Fuji Vision, 1986, for example, combines a flattened car muffler that has been distorted into a sickle shape, a crushed aerosol can, and three used coffee filters to create a readymade constructivist relief. Herms seems to have arranged his objects to express an artificially imposed geometric vocabulary (semicircles, arches, curves), but one never loses sight of the fact that these items have a utilitarian history, where geometry was an intrinsic part of the original design.

The rusted and brown hues Herms uses obviously heighten the sense of age and time passing, creating a distance from the work that teeters on the brink of nostalgia. This feeling is reinforced by his overt use of soft contours, frayed edges, and porous textures to express a feeling of world-weariness, typified by the era of rationing and belt-tightening during and after World War II. Yet Herms’ oeuvre is completely contemporary. His predilection for materials that have clearly seen better days is perhaps a deliberate strategy to draw attention away from materiality in a Pop or appropriative sense, and focus instead on the timelessness of visual language to evoke universal feelings and transcendent responses. In this respect, Herms succeeds.

Colin Gardner