The Whole World in their Hands
by Fred Camper
April 9, 2004
When I was young, my friends and I would sometimes describe great films as “cosmic,” partly in self-parody of our enthusiams. But some abstract art is cosmic in a more literal way. The patterns in Brenden Clenaghen’s seven paintings at Zolla/Lieberman and in Howard Hersh’s ten at Gwenda Jay/Addington seem to stretch beyond the pictures’ borders, as if these works were mere fragments of an imagined universe.
Howard Hersh’s pieces, most made of several conjoined panels, also evoke the decorative but nod to the eternal; the curvy shapes in Junket 3 suggest floral wallpaper or upholstery. These patterns are actually digital prints collaged onto aluminum, with paint both underneath and over them, and they’re repeated–perhaps larger, fainter, or flipped—in various panels or in the rectangles within the panels, suggesting a kind of continuity whether the background is yellow, green, or blue gray. And because no specific flowers or plants are depicted, the work evokes nature’s essence.
Hersh, who now lives in San Francisco, was born in Los Angeles in 1948. In the late 60′s he quit his junior college art studies to live in Haight-Ashbury, and later in various communes in California and New Mexico, where for a time he earned a living making jewlery. More influential than the work of other artists, he says, is the time he spent playing in the woods as a child; in his art he hopes to represent “this interlocking, interconnected organism, the universe,” as “just one big thing–there are no separations between anything.”
Such sentiments might sound like the mushy-headed relics of Hersh’s counterculture past, but his precise forms actually accomplish his goals. Like Clenaghen’s patterns, Hersh’s imply a movement out of the work’s narrow rectangle, both in the picture plane and in depth. Cradle of Civilization is broken down into several rectangular areas, with curved forms crossing the lines between them, created by pouring the paint rather than applying it with brushes—Hersh’s way of producing shapes akin to nature’s (“you cannot draw a shape as beautiful as nature does”). Painting in layers, he creates mysterious depth that adds resonance to his forms. The width of the work is crossed by curvy renditions of a long tendril, which continues beyond the left edge and recedes into the background at the right; like Clenaghens’s vertical bands of dots, this shape suggests a continuity beyond the pictures’s borders. The whole has the feel of a living organism that’s dynamic rather than static—expansive and mutable rather than a single unified being.
Whole One 1 also implies more than it shows. Four square panels are arranged to create an empty rectangular center. Hersh (who once considered architecture as a career) says that grids and geometrical forms are his way of representing the products of humans, and here his veritcal lines do lead beyond the pictures borders. But several faint curved bands suggest a spiral around the small, empty center, focusing our attention on Hersh’s true subject, the void that evokes an undepictable wholeness.