New York

Dan Herschlein, The Hourglass Figure, 2020, wood, plaster, pigmented joint compound, epoxy putty, milk paint, wax, graphite, colored pencil, 61 1/2 × 46 1/2 × 6 1/4".

Dan Herschlein, The Hourglass Figure, 2020, wood, plaster, pigmented joint compound, epoxy putty, milk paint, wax, graphite, colored pencil, 61 1/2 × 46 1/2 × 6 1/4".

Dan Herschlein

The shuddersome tableaux created by Brooklyn-based artist Dan Herschlein aren’t intended to frighten, he says. On the contrary, he hopes his eldritch images will offer some solace to the suffering. But “Dweller,” his solo exhibition at JTT, was so preternaturally dominated by creepiness that finding comfort therein seemed unfathomable.

Though never directly pictured, some sort of violence was implied across the six painted reliefs on view. In Breathing in the Corner (all works 2020), a man’s barely human face—reduced to a trio of grimy, puckered orifices—collapses like a vacuum-sucked plastic bag. One is unsure whether he’s smothering himself with an enormous couch cushion or the object of its own volition is trying to kill him. In The Hourglass Figure, a pair of desiccated hands push through a man’s sagging, acephalous torso. Folds of loose skin droop around his wrists as his palms press up against the panes of a shut window, as if he wanted to get into the gallery. The torso is connected by a withered, ropy neck to another body. This second figure, perched atop the first, acts as a mirror image, which extends to the top of the window and then disappears behind it.

There’s a haunted doubling, too, in the artist’s very materials: Their origins are soothingly domestic (they’re commonly used in furniture making), and yet, like so many domestic things, how they repulse! Herschlein casts his reliefs in plaster, then applies milk paint to create colors that feel distressing, exsanguinated, as if taken from a fading nightmare. And, to give the sculptures a subtle, deathly luster, he finishes them in wax: malleable, meltable stuff that both fascinates and sickens for its lurid fleshiness, for its evocation of what Sartre described as the terror of the viscous, and for its history as an ingredient used in the making of death masks and lifelike anatomical models for dissection.

Herschlein says his affinity for chimerical or dismembered figures comes from his readings on conversion disorders, or the displacement of emotional distress or trauma into different parts of the body, so that when one is grieving a death, for instance, one’s arm may go inexplicably numb. The source of the anguish afflicting these bodies is unknown, though the anomie of suburban life, which the artist knows well from growing up on Long Island, definitely colors the mood. That all the works in this exhibition seemed to be set in different rooms of a suburban American house was crucial. “Emotions haunt bodies,” he explained in a 2017 interview, “and then bodily emotions haunt houses and rooms and furniture.” (An enormous facsimile of a segment of one such home consumed the second room in the gallery.)

If this all sounds like it wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie, that’s because Herschlein is a devotee of the genre. His compositions’ unusual perspectives—a bird’s-eye view, for instance, or a knee-high vantage point—are inspired by camera angles commonly used in horror films to convey an eerie sense of dread. He is particularly drawn to those ancillary scenes in which little happens, but which are gravid with quiet suspense; and in his works, too, the action has been stilled and the climax always takes place offstage. Consider the belt that appears throughout Herschlein’s oeuvre and again here in the relief The Belt That Came In from the Night, as well as the four eel-like belt sculptures scattered across the gallery floor (all titled It Meant Nothing More than the Shape It Took). The artist says he finds the belt compelling as an object imbued with intimations of abuse. His work is filled with things that are so very ordinary, yet also possessed by strange, inenarrable implications.

Yet, unlike truly horrible horror, Herschlein’s works are not abject. They are not perverse or masochistic or violent enough to drag us “toward the place where meaning collapses,” as Julia Kristeva defines that state. They’re not so uncanny as to derange—just weird enough to inspire squeamishness. His brand of horror is less torturous than it is commiserative, and perhaps that’s where its inscrutable comfort lies: in its acknowledgment that life is suffering for us all.