Oliver Herring, born in Germany and now living and working in Brooklyn, is one of the more innovative artists working in New York today. He is a person of both principle and experiment, and, perhaps most important, he remains interested in exploring the figure—through his early knit pieces, his vivid photo sculptures of people, his films and videos, and his performances. His wide profile of expression not only demonstrates Herring’s ease with many kinds of situations, it calls up the audience’s interest as well. The book Oliver Herring: Me Us Them, published by the museum at Skidmore College, offers a somewhat brief but nonetheless sharp investigation into the motives and mechanics of Herring’s art. There is a long interview with author Ian Berry, and an essay by Lawrence Rinder, both of which offer ample insight into Herring and his work. Indeed, the interaction that occurs during the course of the conversation between Rinder and the artist allows Herring to do what he does best, namely, work out an intuitive interaction with another person that touches the social aspects of art and the art itself in highly interesting ways. (The scenario of Herring’s highly creative TASK, a communal art activity dependent on the participants’ ability to create something from inexpensive art materials, perfectly defines his progressive, democratic notion that everyone can and, most likely, should make art.)
The relatively modest production of the book does not get in the way of experiencing Herring’s work, albeit second hand. The images are excellent, even allowing for the fact that the dimensions of the book are relatively small. And the discussion between Herring and Bender really plays out over a broad expanse of notions, chief among them the notion of gender and the idea of piecing things together—a practice that is found in the remarkable knitted work early in Herring’s career and the recent photosculptures, in which Herring takes hundreds of color pictures of a person (usually but not always a man) and works up a three-dimensional, hyperrealist figure. The effect of the photographic shards of body parts is compelling even though seeing the different components’ line of contact make it clear that this is a made thing and not a perfect facsimile to be believed without doubt. More than anything else, it seems to me, Herring is interested in making contact—with his subjects as well as with his audience. This need for social transaction, evident even in the photos of two young men (including Herring) spitting at each other, can take positive or negative forms when experienced from a mainstream point of view. In actuality, however, we find that Herring is strongest when he presents work that ties into grief, as happens in his knit pieces commemorating the death of Ethyl Eichelberger, the noted gay performance artist; or offers art that concerns the figure, as we see in his remarkable photosculptures.
The book’s interview demonstrates a genuine affinity between Berry and Herring, who discuss personal issues such as Herring’s gay sensibility, which made him emotionally vulnerable to the death of Eichelberger in particular and the AIDS crisis in general, and the role of failure in his art, which Herring sees as an inevitable part of his process. Even so, the artist eloquently strikes a note of confidence and independence, which help him move on to whatever the next project may be. Rinder’s short essay details several projects by Herring, one of which took place in Artpace, San Antonio Texas in 2004; it consisted of asking a logger/artist and a Marine to spit food dye against a strong wind. The photos taken of the two men are found in the book and are notably powerful, although also a bit disturbing, in the sense that the color’s traces cover the faces and shirts of the participants. Herring is in many ways a conceptual artist, but he is hardly dry or overly didactic. He finds ways for people to engage with the environment, and encourages people from outside the art world to take part in his directed performances, which can involve the hardship of repetitive physical activity. In that sense, he is both a protagonist and a director of some of his performances, which are playful, experimental, and riveting all at once.
The variousness of Herring’s art shows us that he is someone who is as interested in the process of intervention as he is in the final product. Often, as happens in the knit pieces and the photosculptures, the process of their creation is evident in the actual pieces. This is, I think, a form of honesty on Herring’s part; he seeks a kind of transcendent transparency in the way he works. This candid approach is suggested in the book’s photos, but not necessarily in its written pages. Indeed, we can see the colored coat knit from plastic garbage bags and a singlet made from knit silver Mylar as the aftermath of an extended bout of knitting, which is a performance despite its private nature. A monograph such as the one discussed here doesn’t really have the space for a lot of analytical writing, and Berry wisely emphasized the images over excessive text. Still, it would have been useful for a writer to tie the different strands of Herring’s work together, so that we would have a better understanding of his art as a whole.
Things being what they are, it is very good to have an overview of Herring’s output at this point in his career. He is a genuine adventurer, someone who is open to the experimental but who is also tied, in some ways, to tradition. It is rare to see a figurative artist challenge himself in such basic ways, even when the results are close to spectacular: the two nude photosculptures, Wade 1 and Wade 2 (2006), stand out as remarkable—and openly erotic—in their verisimilitude. And the large 1991 sculpture, A Flower for Ethyl Eichelberger, has real pathos; its multipart blossom, two leaves, and stem possess an integrity that begins as the memorial for a deceased artist and continues to act as an elegy for a crisis in the gay community. The writing, particularly the interview, touches on some of the major points of Herring’s career, but we must be satisfied with the rather slim amount of written materials in the book. What is needed is an overview that would tie the disparate elements of Herring’s art together, a task that, given the strength and independence of his differing series, may be harder than it seems. But this is a quibble based upon the desire for a different kind of a book; Me Us Them develops an intelligent way of looking at Herring, a true artist of our times.
Oliver Herring: Me Us Them
Ian Berry with an essay by Lawrence Rinder
The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum
and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2011