New York

Carol Hepper

Rosa Esman Gallery

Carol Hepper first gained recognition in the mid ’80s for her constructions of wood and animal hide, inspired by the prairie landscape of her native South Dakota. She did not receive significant critical attention, however, until she abandoned the hide, shedding her (regional) skin and adopting a sophisticated, abstract esthetic. Indeed, Hepper’s coming of age has been inextricably linked to her successful assimilation of high Modernist values, at the expense of her previous overtly personal and local tendencies. Thus her reintroduction of animal hide, in the new series of surrealistic assemblages included in this show, was clearly a gamble.

A radical departure from her work in wood, Hepper’s panels feature a variety of found objects attached to relatively small, painted boards, and covered tightly with a layer of tanned deer, elk, buffalo, or calf hide. The skins are translucent and irregular, their surfaces punctuated with rips, folds, pores, and tufts of hair. The objects they cover look embalmed. In Wind, 1990, the blades of an old fan are frozen under a layer of mottled skin; Strong Language, 1990, similarly features a bicycle seat. Stripped of their function and shrouded, these objects suggest strange flowers, unidentifiable body parts, or abstract patterns.

The series reintroduces a personal idiom that Hepper had, it seemed, subordinated to a highly ordered formalism. Her materials—animal hides and willow branches—provide an overdetermined record of her personal history. In one untitled piece from 1990, Hepper arranged her own hair into a pubic triangle that is held so tightly in place that the artist’s hair and the animal’s hide become an eerily unified organic entity. In Pow-Wow, 1991, an uneasy juxtaposition of symbols is just barely visible through the taut veil of skin stretched across both sides of a tractor tire rim: these include a wooden crate on which a target has been painted à la Jasper Johns, and to which two representations of fists have been attached. Replete with references to Hepper’s body as well as to her past, these new works are unapologetically self-referential, yet multivalent enough to transcend any definitive reading.

Also presented here were Hepper’s familiar, large-scale constructions made of bundles of willow branches that have been soaked, bent into place, and bound at key junctures with steel pipes. Significantly larger than in the past, these are scaled more directly to the viewer’s body. Cat’s Cradle, 1990, and Lariat, 1991, are both complex, swirling configurations oriented to the floor. Covering a greater amount of space than before, yet tightly controlled, the torque of the branches suggests dramatic muscular action. Physical Geography, 1991, by contrast, is a sparser vertical arabesque. All of the works inspire wonder by the powerful simplicity of their construction. In Spillway, 1991, Hepper has replaced willow branches with copper and steel, a visually exciting development that wittily suggests a metaphorical shift from the bodily to the technological.

This show was a successful gamble for Hepper: she has proved versatile enough to embark upon a provocative new surrealistic line of inquiry, while simultaneously honing her formal virtuosity.

Jenifer P. Borum