Valerie Hegarty's "American Berserk" exhibit deconstructs the gloss of U.S. history


Valerie Hegarty, Watermelon Tongue 2, 2016, glazed ceramics

Valerie Hegarty, Watermelon Tongue 2, 2016, glazed ceramics.

Brooklyn-based artist Valerie Hegarty is known for site-specific installations. For her American Berserk exhibit in the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery, Hegarty created a rotting watermelon -- which isn't to say she saw the space and thought, "Hmm, this room screams, 'EXPIRED FRUIT.'" Rather, Amanda Krugliak, curator for Institute for the Humanities, suggests Hegarty’s works “speak to the morass, the schism, the cracked facade, and fruit rotten, the flowers drooping.” The tradition of representing fruit on the brink of putrefaction is long established.

Krugliak has also included a variety of sculptures by Hegarty that engage with American iconography, calling it into question and raising suspicions about the stories America tells about its past.

U-M’s event announcement suggests Hegarty has consistently engaged with “fundamental themes of American history and particularly the legacy of 19th-century American art, addressing topics such as colonization, slavery, Manifest Destiny, nationalism and environmental degradation.” Hegarty frequently employs images of George Washington, a symbol of American values, and an excellent example of how American history often glosses over unsavory aspects of its founding fathers’ lives.

The interesting thing about Hegarty’s vision, as Krugliak points out, is that “each work feels steeped in a brew of our collective history, an archive of distorted, iconic American imagery.” While Hegarty’s work represents this familiar American imagery, the icon is always altered. Krugliak gives the example of this alteration, stating that Hegarty’s “seashells and clipper ships begin to morph, strangely animat'ed, sliding to the floor.” The warped seashells are reminiscent of Salvador Dali's work, but as Krugliak suggests, these works are in context of “modern-day folly.”

In her artist’s statement, Hegarty labels the installation process a form of “reverse archaeology,” in which the gallery is transformed by adding and subtracting layers of paint, paper, and epoxy to create a “material memory of a space.” Material memory in relation to space within a museum or gallery setting is already implicit: it is shifting constantly. Hegarty’s frequent employment of stylistic references to early American art in her installations frankly reference and destroy the illusion of reality portrayed by museums, particularly in display practices of American art.

Valerie Hegarty, Watermelon Tongue 2, 2016, glazed ceramics

Valerie Hegarty, Watermelon Head with Banana Smile, 2016, glazed ceramics.

Hegarty employs a multitude of materials in the creation of her sculptures and installations. She has used ceramics (much of the work in the Humanities Gallery is ceramic), wood, paper, and epoxy. One of Hegarty’s signatures is playing with dimensionality and the discrepancy between a flat surface and a 3-D or 2-D object. This generally starts with the idea of the “flat” painting being projected forward into space, sliding off the wall, or apparently melting. In the Humanities’ Gallery, the most striking example of Hegarty’s signature installations is the jutting, 3-D, site-specific sculpture representing George Washington. George is also found represented in modestly sized ceramic topiaries, in which his features are distorted yet recognizable.

Hegarty's title of the show, American Berserk, is a nod to Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, American Pastoral. Roth defines the Berserk as the inverse of the American pastoral ideology. This installation is a “restaging” of the original show that contained these works, held at Burning in Water Gallery in New York, 2016. On her website, many of the works can be seen as they were in the 2016 installation. These images on her website illustrate the differences in each site-specific work. For example, in both 2016 and 2017 she created the George Washington painting, which a tree branch extending from the wall is impaling. The branch simultaneously punctures the “canvas” and becomes an extended nose, referencing Pinocchio, the liar, suggesting the iconic founding father’s wrongdoings.

Additionally, the installation at the University of Michigan’s Humanities Gallery differs from the original in that it appears more dramatic, the branches appearing to have done more damage to the wall. Though the artist’s intervention in the space is not as grand as some of her past installations, the work of art disrupts the normative gallery space. This, paired with the unsettling nature of the works themselves, creates a critique not only of American history and early American art but the practices continuously embraced by museums in displaying these works of art.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

Valerie Hegarty's "American Berserk" is on display at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery, 202 S. Thayer, through Dec. 21. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 am to 5 pm. Free. For more information, visit