New York

Valerie Hegarty

Guild & Greyshkul

The centerpiece of Valerie Hegarty’s recent exhibition at Guild & Greyshkul was a Federalist-era fireplace, but not one exactly redolent of comfort and home. This hearth, like the gallery as a whole, was stuck full of harpoons and spattered with all kinds of muck: tar, slime, mold, and seagull droppings, all of which appeared to emanate from the spot where a harpoon had pierced a grand seascape painting (a loose reworking of Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs, 1861) hanging over the mantel. Hegarty’s show offered a retort to generations of artists who have sought to frame nature as something over which man has prevailed with moral authority. Caspar David Friedrich’s ice-strewn sea—terrifying and sublime, to be sure, but viewed from a place of safety—seems positively placid next to the relics assembled here. All that had once been contained seemed to have broken loose, creating a living room swamped by the epic.

Beyond the fireplace was what might be the decomposing flotsam of an eighteenth-century schooner’s cargo hold; rotting pedestals into which Early American furniture sinks as if into mud; a barnacle-encrusted Revere tea set; a number of paintings from which the rising tide has dissolved the frames’ gilt and the panels’ paint. In the case of Washington Crossing the Delaware (Excavated), 2006, the canvas has been torn from its supports, until all that remains visible is the tip of the flag. The creeping decomposition—rendered with a thoroughness and a variety that are not without humor—brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s observation that for all the shipshape and salubrious qualities associated with boating, the ocean itself is an “enormous engine of decay”; he noticed boats that “looked dipped in a mixture of acid and shit, scabbed with rust and goo, ravaged by what they float in.”

A comparable sculptural flood—of barnacles, glass shards, bits of rope, things past identification—appeared to flow from a harpoon hole in the gallery walls, spilling over the sides of a bucket beneath it, suggesting the depths of unmentionable muck that lie just below the surface of whatever container we construct to keep the world at bay (the gallery’s pristine walls may guarantee one kind of immortality but do not stop the march of time). Like other artists who examine decay—Roxy Paine, for example—Hegarty allows the rot to become its own kind of art. One painting’s seascape merges with the wood grain of the exposed panel underneath it until they are nearly indistinguishable from one another. The damage here is as painterly as the original. (Also like Paine, Hegarty makes everything she shows by hand—from the paintings to the filigreed chair-backs to the barnacled Coca-Cola can—rendering the ruins in loving detail.)

But the implied violence of the harpoons and the angry sea aside, Hegarty presents these scenes in a rather neutral light; they are tableaux, evoking the theatrical staginess of a fable rather than anything real. They are sets for metaphorical action, on which might be acted out the results of underestimating the power of nature—or of over-estimating such values as we invest in our colonial roots.

Emily Hall