New York

Oliver Herring

Max Protetch

The shimmer of Oliver Herring’s signature knitted-Mylar sculptures made over the past decade reflects the influence of Ethyl Eichelberger, the performance artist and transvestite whose career (abruptly ended by his AIDS-related suicide in 1991) inspired Herring to rethink his approach to materials. In a recent interview he observed, “[What] went to the heart of what Ethyl Eichelberger had done . . . [was] making meaningful situations happen through very, very mundane means.”

For the last ten years Herring has been coming up with new ways to do just that. In Raft, 1994, for instance, in which luminous garments seem suspended inside a spectral, cloudlike mattress, he has transformed the silvery Mylar into a nuanced metaphor for temporality and absence. In 1997 he turned to American comic books for his source material, knitting life-size three-dimensional figures of various vintage cartoon characters (Krazy Kat, Bone) as if to provide a foil for his forms’ elegiac “weight,” only partially lightened by their delicate semitransparency. He soon began to explore video; a 1999 work shows the artist in stop-action arranging large geometric shapes in a room.

The centerpiece of this show was Herring’s most ambitious (though still low-tech) foray into multimedia: A multiple-channel video titled Little Dances of Misfortunes, 2002, played on five monitors lined up side by side, accompanied by a piece of Baroque harp music edited and rearranged by the artist. For each video a series of motions was performed by phosphorescent-painted dancers in various costumes, moments of which were filmed. You see each “scene” only for a split second before the lights illuminating the performers are turned off, which creates a sudden dramatic fade to black. For a moment in the dark you see the bright lines of the glowing paint outlining the figures, and then comes the next glimpse, usually of a totally different grouping. A kaleidoscopic morphing is achieved through the rapid editing. Infused with energy and play, the piece renounces the solemnity that pervaded much of Herring’s earlier work.

Despite the panoply of visual effects, however, the simple choreography echoes Herring’s other, humbler craft: It is as If the interlocking knitted stitches have been exchanged for interlaced painted figures. Capitalizing on the organic, generative nature of his work, Herring pushes his post-Minimalist process-oriented aesthetic center stage, where the formal concerns of repetition, mutation, and metaphor are taken apart and reanimated. Whether through pedestrian movements or more complex illusions, a mutable and far-reaching field of allusion is evoked. Little Dances pays homage to a host of theatrical and cinematic muses, including Chaplin and Keaton, whose physical personas are conjured in the videos’ disconnected movement. From the awkward sight gags of early cinema to the mythic frolic of a Nijinsky-esque fawn, Little Dances’s pastiche is both sophisticated and childlike.

Herring’s concern for process and open-ended reference is revitalized with a refreshing nod to both the painterly and the performative—elements that have historically played out a fascinating dialogue, whether in the Abstract Expressionist choreography of Pollock or the hand-painted Pop staged by Johns. Included in the show are photographs from Little Dances’s staging that serve to further accentuate Herring’s method of juxtaposing abstract and figurative forms. These photos are a testament to the historical layering and restituted memories only a postmodern alchemist would want us to tap.

Mason Klein