In 2013 Valerie Hegarty displayed her unique reverence for history by recreating Rembrandt Peale’s 1824 portrait of George Washington without his head in the Cupola House Parlor of the Brooklyn Museum. In another early American period room, Hegarty presented a sculpture of a flock of crows devouring a pile of fruit that had spilled out of a still-life painting. Through these interventions, Hegarty used satirical means to construct a de-sanctified view of America’s past.
In those works, Hegarty depicted a sense of decay using papier-mâché—a process she described as “reverse archeology.” For her latest solo show, “American Berserk,” currently on at Burning in Water in Chelsea, through December 5, Hegarty has used ceramic sculpture to shift her attention from the creation of archaeology to artifacts themselves.
Having grown up in a small town in New England, Hegarty was exposed early on to a romanticized vision of America. Both her parents were first generation Americans born of immigrant parents and, in their attempt to assimilate, filled the house with patriotic ephemera, from Revolutionary War rifles to a Paul Revere tea set. As Hegarty aged, she came to realize most of these items were fake, made out of plastic, or, in the case of some idyllic historical landscape paintings, purchased from the local hardware store. From those realizations, the seeds of Hegarty’s future art practice grew.
“I’m always interested in talking about transformation,” Hegarty said one recent afternoon in her studio in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by a sinister set of anthropomorphic fruits—tooth-filled watermelon rinds, spinal carrot carcasses, and some Arcimboldo-style faces. The pieces are a morbid answer to kitschy centerpieces of yesteryear, now robbed of their evergreen freshness. President Washington also makes a reappearance in the form of several sagging topiaries. “I felt like maybe ceramics could talk about that idea more since the pieces themselves aren’t actually decaying,” the artist said.
In an interview, condensed and lightly edited, Hegarty discussed her work, and how it related to her visions of America.
ARTnews: The title of your show was taken from the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral. What appealed to you about the phrase “American berserk”?
Valerie Hegarty: The book is about an immigrant family living in Newark, New Jersey, during the Vietnam War. At one point, the daughter gets involved in guerrilla activity and plants a bomb at the local post office which kills the postman and becomes this really dark secret thing in their family. There’s a sentence later in the book where Roth asks what would be the opposite of “American pastoral.” The answer he gives is an “indigenous American berserk,” which I was thinking is like Americana gone a bit weird, showing its more sinister side. It’s the darkness in the American dream.
Why did you decide to change your medium for this show?
Last year I decided that I wasn’t going to make sculpture anymore and began painting watercolors during a residency. I was exploring the genre of still life because that was also the subject of one of my last solo shows on the Lower East Side. When I tried making them as bigger paintings, though, they really looked like they should rather be sculpture so I started taking ceramic classes. I brought pictures to my first ceramic class of what I wanted to make, and they were like, “ugh.” It was a pot-making class, but they indulged me.
How does working with ceramics differ from your papier-mâché practice?
I feel like clay can have a lot more nuance. With papier-mâché you’re adding in all the details, and with clay you’re doing the opposite in a way that has more surprises and you have less control. The pieces I think are the best involved an accident. It animates the work a lot more than papier-mâché.
I can see how the fruits evolved out of your interest in still life, but where did the inspiration for the George Washington topiaries come from?
Those were slightly inspired by my dad. I had explained to him what conceptual and installation art were and, in response, he made this really crude smiley face in a bush. I have a picture of him standing next to it with a chainsaw, and I remember thinking, “That’s brilliant, I’m going to steal that.” I think it’s a funny sculptural medium—to carve something out of a bush seems kind of silly. As for George Washington, I was thinking about how some of my previous work talked about nationalism and manifest destiny being embedded in landscape painting. It’s a complete melding, like Mount Rushmore.
Do you think you’ll continue to work with ceramics?
Totally. It may be suited more to my personality in a way. I think it’s a good fit. I felt like I could let go more, and I think it has something to do with feeling more relaxed about how it’s going to be viewed. There’s a kind of dark, childish humor in there. It feels a little more exciting for me—it’s different and I think the imaginative realm of it has more possibilities.