Oliver Herring, "Sculpture," Nov. 5-Dec. 3, 1997, at Max Protetch, 511 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y 10011.
Oliver Herring first received attention for his knitted Mylar homages to Ethyl Eichelberger, the brilliant but under-recognized performance artist who committed suicide while suffering from AIDS. In these elegant and intelligent works, a tacky industrial material was transformed through a laborious hand process into something evanescent and elegiac. The objects made sense within the context of post-Minimalist practice while also addressing the AIDS crisis.
For his recent show at Max Protetch, Herring turned his attention to the American comic book figures that he read about growing up in Germany. His new objects seem to be sculptural renderings of his memories of characters like Krazy Kat or the Silver Surfer. The figures extend up from a mass of knit Mylar on the floor, as if they were emerging from an oceanic collective unconscious, or perhaps fading into it. They still retain some of the jewel-like faded glamour of the Eichelberger series, and feel related to it in another way. Eichelberger made art from the junk shop of history and gender. Herring, in this new work, makes it out of the attic of his memories, conscious or unconscious.
Mylar knitting is a meditative, intuitive process. It's also obsessional, and any obsessive method involves self-imposed problems. It doesn't lend itself to exact rendering. The pieces that rise from the floor have a certain rough-hewn quality. At moments they seem awkward, like creatures not quite formed. These inchoate superheroes are also semi-transparent. You can see into them, more or less. Threatened by amorphousness, they become open-ended object-metaphors. This wouldn't have happened if Herring had given us literal or Pop renderings. In this way the work is generous. We are invited, I think, to bring our own stuff to these superheroes.
I bring my own stuff to them:
Silver Surfer is oddly androgynous or hermaphroditic. He is riding a surfboard. But it wouldn't be wrong to look at the surfboard and see a dress. It's a metamorphosis: the surfer is some slacker Aphrodite, rising out of the waves.
In My Grandmother Lovingly Remembered as Hellboy, the memory of the grandmother merges with that of the comic hero who, although created by the forces of evil to be a perfect weapon, rebels and tries to do good. Herring's sculpture is an oblique memoir and a hybrid gestural poem.
In Glass House, a jewel-like, shimmering work, there are forms beneath a blanket. But what are these forms? Eichelberger's gown has become something new, but what? Is it something still emerging from the primordial? Are we to think of one of Mike Kelley's blankets? Or of Philip Johnson's glass house? Is it Bone, a character who is the subject of another Herring piece, beneath the blanket? The uncertainty takes us into a strongly felt, non-logical realm.
Kluhssalg is the Incredible Hulk. But he also looks like Rodin's thinker. A very tired version of Rodin's thinker. This hulk seems drained of all its power. The air has been let out of him. What becomes of the urge to identify with a superhero in adulthood?
In Circumvented and Circumnavigated Krazy Kat, comic cats are surrounded by crazy swirls. Although Herring may not have intended this, they are also hats. Hats which Eichelberger or an unknown successor might wear.
ROBERT MARSHALL is an artist and writer who lives in New York.