VALERIE HEGARTY’s painting, sculpture and installation simulate a collision between nature and culture. Crows attack three-dimensional recreations of still life paintings, and grasses take root and flourish in an Aubusson rug. Rosebushes grow through gallery walls. The damage sustained by these cultural objects and spaces is an incidental, insistent reminder of the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth that exists at every moment,
even when we try to hide from it in the notion of the supremacy of
civilization and culture. Valerie’s work is included in the permanent
collections of The Brooklyn Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art and the 21c Museums. Valerie Hegarty: Alternative Histories,
a site-specific installation that activates the Brooklyn Museum’s
Period Rooms, is currently on view until December 1, 2013. Her numerous
solo shows include exhibitions at Marlborough (2012), Guild & Greyshkul, (2005 and 2006), the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (2008), and most recently Nichelle Beauchene Gallery (2010 and 2013). Valerie lives and works in New York City.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Throughout your practice as an artist, you've explored decay, damage and impermanence. You make regular reference to vanitas painting,
scavenger birds and shipwrecks, all implying a bittersweet reckoning
with mortality. Were you initially more attracted to the aesthetics of
decay, or the concept of it?
Valerie Hegarty: I was initially interested in the idea of deconstruction with decay and damage as a means to an end. It’s a representational device to deconstruct a painting, and the aesthetics of decay become a formal way to abstract a representational painting. I like the layering of meaning and the multiple narratives that occur. I’m not really interested in the fetishization of decay. Decay in my work is a way to talk about the breakdown of ideas that are no longer working.
OPP: In your 2012 solo Figure, Flowers, Fruit at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery
in New York, you referenced the history of portraiture and still life
painting. But the works featured were more sculptures than paintings.
The peaches in one still life explode out of the frame onto the wall. In a portrait titled Woman in White,
flowers appear to be growing from the sitter's face and the bottom edge
of the frame dissolves into a system of roots. Could you talk about the
idea of nature overtaking culture?
VH: I think of my work as painting more than sculpture, but there is a transition in most pieces where a painting on the wall appears to explode or grow into three dimensions. I often cite Thomas Cole’s series of five paintings The Course of Empire as a reference for my work. In Cole’s series, civilization and the landscape are depicted in five stages with the pastoral being the most harmonious. As the series continues, civilization grows, leading to greed, decadence and war. Civilization destroys itself and collapses into ruin. The final stage of the series is Desolation: all evidence of man is erased, and buildings are eroded and reclaimed by nature. There is the implication that the cycle will start all over again with rebuilding and repopulation. I see my work as the desolation phase, where culture has broken down. Nature is taking over, laying a fertile ground for something new to grow.
OPP: In 2011, you
repeatedly "melted" George Washington's face in watercolor and acrylic
paint. Although this decay or destruction of the human face and of the
painting evokes all the same ideas as other vanitas work you've done,
these read differently to me. Because the figure of George Washington is
so loaded, I read this work as about the erosion of faith and
pride in our historical American icons, and possibly about the erosion
of their actual value as heroes. Yes, George Washington was the
idealized father of the United States, but he was also a human being and
a slave owner. When did you first decide to melt his face and what does
this action mean to you?
VH: I first started to recreate paintings of George Washington in 2007 and have done a number of works over the years where his face and/or body are altered. On one level, I’m interested in a comic reference to the death of painting by creating a painting that appears to be self-destructing or vandalized. In the series of melted faces, I am also interested in the transition from what appears believable to the impossible, much like magical realism in fiction. There is a surrealist transition; the face is melting in a way that would not actually happen in reality. I also like the reference to the Gothic fiction story The Picture of Dorian Gray. The main character realizes that one day his beauty will fade, so he expresses a desire to sell his soul to ensure a painted portrait of himself would age rather than he. His wish is granted, and when he subsequently pursues a life of debauchery, the portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul. With each sin, the painting becomes more grotesque. Using the iconic portrait of George Washington creates a commentary on the formation of American identity with the disfigured portrait revealing the return of repressed and darker elements of American history.
OPP: George Washington's portrait is not the only famous painting you've "destroyed" in your work. Niagara Falls, Fallen Bierstadt and Among the Sierras with Woodpecker all reference so-called masterworks by Albert Bierstadt, who was part of the Hudson River School. Why so many Bierstadts?
VH: I choose paintings that are considered “masterpieces” of American art and that I consider to be iconic images of the American landscape. For whatever reason, many of Bierstadt’s images of the American West rang familiar to me even though I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to identify the artist prior to doing research for my work. It’s not important to me that there are a number of Bierstadts referenced in my work. I’m not really concerned with the artist, but the image.
OPP: Are these reproductions or recreations of Bierstadt's landscapes that you are "destroying"?
They are created reproductions that appear to be destroyed. As the
decay is very carefully crafted and sculpted, the worked is actually
constructed rather than deconstructed, although the illusion is the
There are definitely social and political messages in the decay that address American identity and the damage created through its formation—war damage, the oppression of peoples, damage to the environment through global warming and deforestation.
My altering of these iconic images can also be a metaphor for how memory processes imagery. It’s a collage-like process: we have familiar images in our heads that we are constantly altering, editing and updating to reflect our current reality.
OPP: In your 2010 installation at Locust Projects
in Miami, you combined anamorphic painting techniques, paper-mache and
photography to create "the impression that the gallery walls have been
stripped back to reveal an old Miami building interior." But you've been
creating architectural illusions in your installations since grad
school. Some early examples in include Renovation (2002) in your grad school studio, Green Bathroom (2003) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Childhood Bedroom (2004) at the Drawing Center
in New York. Why does creating three-dimensional illusions continue to
captivate you? Could you also talk generally about illusion and its
VH: I think of the projects you mentioned as drawings, collages or paintings. In essence I was creating the illusion that a section of the gallery wall was peeling away to reveal an older interior. To create this effect I glued painted layers of paper to the gallery walls and floors. These layers were often cut to the exact size of different architectural materials like floorboards, wallpaper and tile. Afterwards, I would peel and scrape the paper. Although the piece looked subtractive, it was actually additive. I called this work “reverse archeology,” and for me it was an investigation of memory. It was similar to making a drawing on paper, and then erasing it partially.
I think of the space created in this work as similar to the illusionistic space that is created in a painting. Except, in my work, the painting is extended out to the walls and the floor. I consider it a three-dimensional painting and that is how I consider most of my other work as well. The illusionism is a means to an end and not an end in itself. I’m interested in drawing the viewer in by creating uncanny scenarios that create surprise and curiosity in the viewer. Only when drawn in closer, can the viewer begin to ponder the line between fact and fiction and, I hope, delight in the discoveries.
OPP: You have a very impressive exhibition record, including 13 solo exhibitions since you got your MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago
in 2002. That’s almost one a year and sometimes two in a single year!
Did you approach any of the curators or exhibition directors of the
galleries and museums where you’ve had solo shows, or did they approach
you? Can you offer any advice to emerging artists about lining up solo
exhibitions and studio visits?
VH: Yes, I have been extremely busy the past 10 years! I landed my first solo at Gallery 400 in Chicago by responding to an open call for proposals. Someone at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago saw that show and invited me to make a proposal for their emerging artist space. In NYC, I was approached by Guild & Greyshkul, my first gallery, after they had seen my work in a group show at The Drawing Center and had heard that I had been selected for a Rema Hort Foundation grant. I was approached by Museum52 in London to do a solo show after they saw a large piece of mine in the NADA art fair in Miami. So yes, every time I was approached by the gallery directly, but only because they had seen my work elsewhere in a group show.
My advice for emerging artists is to apply to all open calls at legitimate spaces because even if you are not selected, it still means a group of curators will see your work when when the proposals were reviewed. Keep close to your artist peers and be generous with sharing information. Often I am selected to be in group shows because a curator is familiar with my work or an artist friend recommended me. In NYC, it's very hard to approach galleries directly, or get an "in" simply because you know someone at the gallery. Gallerists generally want to discover their own artists. They are bombarded with people trying to get them to look at their work. Apply for anything that involves an application: grants, slide files, group shows, residencies, studio space programs. Do studio visits with your friends so they are familiar with your work and will think of you if they are asked to recommend other artists for shows. I applied for every single emerging artist opportunity in NYC and started getting chosen for things. That lead to group shows and then eventually being noticed. Most likely you will need another job to pay your bills. That is the norm for most artists, so prepare for that reality. It's not easy. But if it's what you want to do, don't give up.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.