The sublime has something of the hyperbolic about it; ecstatic superlatives usually do. And, as Elias Canetti once noted, “there emanates from superlatives a destructive force.” A similar sentiment underscores the multi-media oeuvre of Valerie Hegarty, the New York-based artist who recently took over the second floor of Chelsea’s Marlborough Gallery with a solo show entitled Altered States. Constructed from scratch primarily of foam core and papier-mâché, Hegarty’s trompe l’oeil installations transformed the space into something resembling a period room at a museum or an historic site that had been consumed by disaster, decay and detritus. The aggregate of the installation gave the impression of a collective wake for the neglected, shipwrecked and spoiled. Poised somewhere between artifact and anecdote, Hegarty had created ad hoc monuments to entropy which rest somewhere between relic and ruin. Spilling out of the walls and onto the gallery floor were the vestiges of fictional portraits and ornate decorative furnishings constructed and subsequently deconstructed by Hegarty in a manner that transcends the traditional boundaries between sculpture and painting. Hegarty told me on a recent gallery visit that she is “interested most in playing with figurative painting so as to make the realism of painting more sculptural and the relationship between the two media more fluid, almost in an animated way.”
This year has seen a massive output of artistic works that allude to some kind of apocalyptic tone. Collapse, decadence, entropy and the End Times are all themes that have set the mood for numerous exhibitions and gallery shows across New York and elsewhere. While Hegarty herself has been connected to this thread—she was invited to participate in a group show earlier this year at Mixed Greens Gallery entitled End of Days—her work seems to take a less literal approach to the subject. Then again, the literal meaning of apocalypse is “revelation,” which may well be an appropriate word to apply to her work. While drawing on the rhetorical strategies of apocalyptic tone, her work focuses primarily on capturing the moment of transition between two conditions, working through a movement of disintegration and only figurative reconstitution. Allusions to failed utopias, anachronisms and man-made structures reclaimed by nature are recurrent themes animating landscapes in a perpetual state of flux. Gesturing to sites of decay as kinds of palimpsests, Hegarty’s works appear as both vestige and design, serving as place markers not only for a site’s residual (fictional) past, but also for their future figuration. Hegarty’s work might be best characterized in a manner akin to a formulation that the French critic Louis Marin used to describe the “je ne sais quoi of the sublime” as that which “is between the brim and the brimming over of measure, of form.” What Hegarty ultimately offers is not an appeal to a return to a natural state, but a view of the natural world that itself is a kind of decadence as it reclaims the man-made after a period of overindulgence.
Hovering somewhere between the nostalgic and the entropic, Hegarty’s works negotiate the slippery boundaries between the natural and the artificial, sculpture and painting, rise and decline. At first glance, Hegarty’s works suggest a division between the natural and the man-made, encouraging the victory of the former over the latter. “I like when half of the work is beautiful and in the other half it is a quick spiral downward,” Hegarty explained. Yet, Hegarty’s approach to these apparent binaries does not necessarily pit them against one another. Instead, the focal point is the cyclic grey area between the two. Her installations engage in a kind of deferral, a sustained condition of refiguration hell-bent on maintaining a kind of suspended tug-of-war between the natural and artificial, artifice and artifact. Her work is deeply influenced by both Romanticism and Gothic literature and, as Hegarty told me, Frankenstein is a figure that often crosses her mind when creating her installations, given the grafted juncture between the natural and the manmade that the creature represents. The same applies to the meeting point between the fictional and the historical in her works. Or, as she herself put it, “it’s more about narratives and the idea that if I add enough layers of fiction (and paint) it will somehow add up to a reality of its own.”