A renowned artist who has exhibited at great art institutions around the world has set up shop at the tiny Emmanuel Gallery on the University of Colorado’s Auraria campus in downtown Denver.
Oliver Herring, born in Heidelberg, Germany, and now based in Brooklyn, has been feted in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim; in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in Japan at The Kyoto Art Center.
He has spent the last month in CU Denver’s Emmanuel Gallery because, really, he’s all about people.
“People are his paintbrush,” Emmanuel Gallery director and curator Jeff Lambson said.
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Herring is here at Lambson’s invitation. The two met when Lambson was a curator at the Hirshhorn. They also worked together at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah, when Lambson was founding curator of contemporary art there. Lambson said Herring is still on top of who’s getting married, who’s doing what in Provo. Herring promised he would someday do a residency in Denver.
He’s the kind of guy who stays in touch.
Oliver Herring is known for mixing performance with art objects, documenting his process through photography and video. He’s been working on this spontaneous style for more than a decade. Three of his works are included in the Denver Art Museum’s “Phantom Canyon: A Digital Circuit” exhibit, but Herring has been so busy creating, working with volunteers since Aug. 19, he hasn’t had time to visit the museum.
“This will sound preachy,” said the artist wearing a dark shirt, black shorts, hiking boots and tie-dyed socks. “But art should be accessible. It should not be defined by education or by access to an institution.”
The Emmanuel, built in 1876 and the first building listed as a historic site by Denver’s Landmark Preservation Commission, is “a little jewel box,” Herring said.
The first thing he did was get rid of the hanging lights to double the airspace inside the gallery.
Herring’s work is collaborative, stream-of-consciousness and “on the fly, with no preconceived plan,” he said.
Dirt, flour, glitter combine in “deconstructed quilts”
It’s also messy.
Start with 400 lbs. of dirt, 200 lbs. of flour, 5 gallons of food dye, 2 liters of baby oil and 5 lbs. of glitter. Add a core group of 20 volunteers willing to pose for hours sprinkled with all of the above for photographs that ultimately will be stitched together into giant, 15-by-25 two-sided “deconstructed quilts” to be hung diagonally across the gallery. Then juxtapose the quilt with a video of choreographed movement on a large screen upstairs, self-directed by the volunteers, not trained dancers but art students. It makes for a multimedia event.
Naked body parts, closeups of faces and posed figures, a woman’s curves partly hidden beneath rocks, men doused with flour and oil, are photographed in works that, for the first time, Herring will pair with clipped news headlines. Without them, the images felt “frivolous,” he said. The New York Times headlines serve “to bring the outside world in.”
“Trump Says China Will Suffer but Data Show Tariffs Hurting U.S.,” for instance.
In just the time Herring has been in Denver, he said, he’s been reading about the Amazon burning, riots in Hong Kong, yet another shooting and a hurricane. “This is the sort of assault people have to live with. Art has the potential to find outlets to help people process.”
Achieving a formal portrait using layers of gooey, affordable, craft-store materials on a model somehow makes a surreal statement. Covering volunteer Tomás Bernal with flour, oil, glitter and paints was “a way to get him out of his comfort zone,” Herring said. “It’s perverse. That’s the point.”
(Spending hours at a time under all that mess was indeed uncomfortable, Bernal acknowledged.)
Among Herring’s newer efforts are the “photogarments,” mashups of couture and photography in which a photograph of a human face is transferred to silk that is fashioned into a dress. That grew out of his frustration with “the discrepancy between something that is performative in the moment and a much more static object on the wall.”
Herring intends to experiment with photogarments for a while. “It leaves the sanctity of the image intact while reshaping the context,” he said. “The way you look at it changes, the photograph distorts itself around the body, reanimating the photograph.”
At the opening, one or two women will wear the pieces.
All art, no agenda
The “31 Days” experiment is the third of Herring’s on-site improv adventures. Previously he did 40-some days in China, 20-some days in San Luis Obispo, California. “I think I’m going to continue like that for a while.”
He doesn’t necessarily work with young people or on a university campus. “I’ve worked in senior citizen centers, with military, with people on the spectrum, with religious groups, with homeless teens, all over the world.” He prides himself on never going in with an agenda.
While the works have an urgent, modern feel, they also allude to famous art historical works. One brightly colored photograph, in which a subject’s arms are hidden behind the back, could be mistaken for a psychedelic Venus de Milo. Another features a bearded hipster who could double as Velasquez’s King Philip. Mondrian, Man Ray, Matisse, they’re all hinted at here.
“These people are my heroes. I’m happy to process them in my work,” Herring said. Now that he’s had a chance to look at his Denver efforts collected together, he thinks the theme might be “Figure on a Pedestal.”
Lambson credits university authorities with a willingness to take a risk on the “31 Days” project. “This is very out there, to trust an artist to create new work, it’s not borrowing works.”
Among the risks that already have gone awry: $1,000-worth of defective rolls of silk have to be replaced with rolls flown in from New York. “You realize how isolated we are,” with no textile industry here, said Sharifa Moore, a recent graduate and associate curator.
With less than a week until the opening, Moore planned to work on logistics for getting the silk while Herring and a group of volunteers gathered for “a road trip,” for the artist to see Denver beyond the campus and for the group to shoot the on-the-fly, not-really-dance but somehow choreographed video.
CORRECTION: This story was updated Sept. 16, 2019, at 11:58 a.m. to clarify that Oliver Herring’s works were included in Denver Art Museum’s “Phantom Canyon: A Digital Circuit” on their merit, not because of his residency at Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria Campus.
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