In Valerie Hegarty’s work, autobiography, history, and art history merge seamlessly into engaging installations with a distinct sense of place – visceral and subtle, layered and focused. An inquisitive rigor runs through her work, stirring in the viewer an appetite for more. Valerie Hegarty shared with Art Spiel some thoughts on art making, her own art journey, and some of her upcoming projects.
AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to art.
Valerie Hegarty: I loved to make things as a child, whether drawing, painting, sewing or using found objects to construct something. I thought everyone loved to do this as a kid but I thought when you got older you had to do something more “serious”. I did well in school and was good in most subjects, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college when I took an art foundation class that I felt like I finally understood what people meant when they said they were “passionate” about something.
I majored in fine art at a liberal arts school and tried to find a commercial art field to pursue upon graduating. I didn’t know that being a fine artist could be a career. I pursued graphic arts and kind of hated it, then went back to school for illustration and did editorial illustration for a few years. I quit that also and decided I would get a studio and have art be separate from my job so I got a part-time job as a Powerpoint specialist and then made things in my studio with no emphasis on product. I collected objects from the street and worked with mixed media constructions.
Eventually I entered some art shows and got interested in going to art school for my masters. It was 10 years after undergrad when I went back to grad school at The Art Institute of Chicago and I loved being in art school. I didn’t really do it to try to enter the fine art world, I just always wanted to go to art school. I started doing installations right out of grad school that got some attention and I’ve been working in New York ever since.
AS: You describe your work as “often turning the gallery space into a dramatic place of change,” in a process you call “reverse archeology.” Can you elaborate on that intervention process?
Valerie Hegarty: I started making these installations back in 2002 where I would create what looked like a gutted space in the gallery. The first piece of this kind was for my graduation show. I measured everything in my kitchen that touched the wall and floor, like cabinets, molding, tile, stove, sink; then I cut out the shapes of these architectural and kitchen items from painted paper at the correct scale. I then glued the layers of these painted paper to the walls and floor, let everything dry and went back with a scraper to peel everything off the wall. This left the impression that the room had once been a kitchen and had now been gutted.
During the course of my graduation show, people kept shutting the door to my room because they thought it was a gutted room that hadn’t been cleaned for the show. I continued to do installations like this based on spaces from my personal life – my apartment lobby, the bathroom in my studio building, my childhood bedroom. I called this process of layering the paper and then peeling it back as if to locate a buried space from my personal history, “reverse archeology.”
AS: Let’s take your “Subway Stop” series as an example– what is the genesis, process, ideas?
Valerie Hegarty: “Eastern Parkway / Brooklyn Museum: My Subway Stop” is the most recent work in the “reverse archeology” series. It is the subway stop that takes me to and from home. I wanted to make one of these paper works in a smaller scale, so it functioned more like a portal than an environment.
The work is about memory, place and personal history. I’m interested in taking a window into that personal location and transposing it in a gallery space. I hope the work can be read on many levels and that people can bring their own experience to the work. I also think about creating a memory of a place that exists in the past and present and perhaps in the future. Along with more personal readings, I think about the decay of infrastructure as a pressing issue in our world and the decay of the NY Subway system as a daily struggle.
AS: What can you tell me about “Alternative Histories“ at the Brooklyn Museum?
Valerie Hegarty: “Alternative Histories” was a project where I was invited by the Brooklyn Museum to create installations in three of the early American Period Rooms. The rooms we decided upon were interiors from European Settlers homes. I decided to add a narrative to each room that would attempt to highlight repressed histories such as creating a tableau of crows attacking a bounty of fruits in a plantation dining room to introduce a field of blackness and suggest a slave revolt.
AS: You construct canvases and sculptures that replicate paintings and antiques from early American art history, falsifying their ruination by devices associated with their historical significance. Can you elaborate on that?
Valerie Hegarty: When I choose a sculpture or painting from American art history to deconstruct, I try to point to the meaning embedded in the original work by way of the destruction. For example, “Among the Sierras with Woodpecker” appears to be a master painting by Albrecht Bierstadt that has been riddled with machine gun fire. Only on closer inspection does the viewer discover the culprit is a woodpecker. Perhaps fooled by the realism of the artist’s hand, the woodpecker appears to have pecked holes throughout the painting looking for infestation. The metaphoric infestation being the narrative of manifest destiny that was embedded in these early landscape scenes. Almost as if it had emerged from the woodlands scene itself, the woodpecker has turned on the quintessential American landscape inserting an undertone of self-destruction into the narrative.
AS: What does “appropriation” mean to you?
Valerie Hegarty: To take something that already exists and make it your own. For me, copying a work of art is a way to learn about it and understand it in a different way. Since we are not allowed to “touch” original works of art, my compulsion is to copy them, thus making them mine, and then I can take them apart, turn them inside out, and reconstruct them in a way that adds my own experience and point of view to the work.
AS: Robin Schor wrote in ArtNews (11/8/16) that in your earlier works you utilized papier-mâché to depict a sense of decay, while later on, in your solo show “American Berserk,” at Burning in Water you have used ceramic sculpture, shifting your focus “from the creation of archaeology to artifacts themselves.” What is your take on that?
Valerie Hegarty: With the paper and paper-mache works, I would create layers and build up surfaces only to tear them apart again. The paper lends itself to this way of working. When working with ceramics however, I can’t take apart the finished work aside from smashing it and re-gluing it back together. So, in the ceramic works the transformation has to be embedded in the form of the sculpture from the beginning of the process. I love working in ceramics for this reason. I think it forces me to be more imaginative.
AS: What are you working on now?
Valerie Hegarty: I am still exploring the still life theme in some new works in ceramics and mixed-media. I’m working on overcoming some technical challenges with scaling up in ceramics.
AS: I was reminded by Heidi Harrington Johnson’s article in Artforum that your title “American Berserk“ comes from Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” which I consider as one of the most tantalizing three-dimensional literary portrait of the American psyche. Johnson argues that like Roth, “you are drawn to this country’s damaged history.” What are your thoughts there?
Valerie Hegarty: I love the novel “American Pastoral“ by Philip Roth. In the book there is a line asking what would be the opposite of the “American Pastoral” and the reply is the “Indigenous American Berserk.” I am interested in similar themes as in the novel, of how the American dream becomes warped through social and political turmoil. In my case, I look to American art history to find idealized scenes that I then create to appear altered in some way to reflect contemporary anxieties.