It is often said that big ideas come in small packages; perhaps that quip originated from the lips of an artist. What else can explain the emotions rising from the series of small figurines artfully arranged in vignettes, staring at me with blank eyes, beaks and various snouts that define the space of Jeff Herrity’s Mount Rainier studio? The androgynous, hybrid forms teeter on the knife edge between the preciously domestic and utterly alien, engendering feelings of warmth and slight unease in equal measure. That off-kilter position—cutting straight to the meat of one’s oldest memories–is exactly where the artist wants you. Thankfully our recent studio visit grounded me firmly back on the floor, as the artist discussed his drawn connections between dolls, memories and the shaping of one’s personality.
Like his art, Herrity presents a study in contrasts, with an open and affable conversational style that might (for some) present a contrast to his “MAKE ART” tattoo that packs a real one-two punch. I was surprised to learn that his headlong dive into sculpting comes on the heels of an IT career, but listening to him discuss his youth it is clear that seeds of artistry were planted at an early age. His interest in pottery led to classes at the Torpedo Factory, where he learned to “traditionally throw” vessels on a pottery wheel. He made the full-time leap into the arts in 2008, when he enrolled in a dual degree program at the Corcoran School of Art, earning a BFA followed by a Master’s in Art Education in 2013. In just over two years as a full-time artist, he’s already staged two solo shows locally (Hillyer Art Space in 2014; the Fridge in 2015), received a 2016 DCCAH artist fellowship and exhibited in group shows as far away as the United Kingdom.
Interestingly, those early childhood memories are some of the first ideas to inform his scholastic portfolio and continue to exert a strong influence in his present work. His mother seemingly had a slipcast pottery mold for every holiday, and Herrity fondly remembers playing with her works as a child (a pastel-hued Easter egg holds pride of place in his studio). Where these simple figurines skewed decorative in his youth, Herrity’s contemporary shapes seek to examine how childhood memories impact our personal sense of adulthood and shape the way we engage the world around us. Using molds very similar to those he saw as a child, the artist creates figurines and totems whose complex shapes blur the lines between imagination and reality.
The look of the finished works understate the complexity of tasks it takes to create them. Each slipcast sculpture is an amalgamation of forms from several different molds. Herrity has contacts with modern mold suppliers, but he also scours EBay and other internet sites for vintage molds reminiscent of his childhood (“I’m a sucker for a Jesus and a bunny,” he wryly notes.). In the initial stages of production, the slip, similar in look and consistency to a partially-melted chocolate shake, is poured into the mold through a small hole in the top. As the mold draws the water out of the slip, the artist drains the excess material, and when enough moisture has leached from drying material, the cast is ready to detach from the mold and fired in the kiln to harden. The artist will repeat these steps dozens of times with a variety of molds to create building blocks for finished works. His exhibition at the Fridge introduced multiple colors to the mix, which Herrity adds directly to the slip before it is poured into the mold.
The resulting figurines blend an endearing feeling of intimacy with a heavy dose of surrealism. There is a sense of kitsch at first (I’m reminded of Hummel figurines), but that sense of familiarity gives way to vague confusion as we begin to examine these alien life forms. Small, genderless bodies comprise the torso of many of these figurines whose heads range from whimsical rabbits to religious iconography such as flaming hearts. The bottom-up, foot to head transition from a naïve innocence to complex life form in many ways mirrors the way we move from a childlike sense of self into fully-conceived adulthood with all its attendant notions of gender norms and proscribed ways of social interaction. In other words, how do we respond to, and perhaps reconcile, the childlike impulses and memories that still thrive in our adult psyches?
For Herrity, the answer seems as simple as it is profound: you celebrate. You bask in the warmth of those memories, using them almost as a beacon as you weave your way through the complex maze of adulthood. You understand that those memories have intrinsic value, gently shaping the man or woman you’re becoming in present day. This path is not always clear, underscored by some of the abrupt transitions posed in the figurines whose hybrid natures are as jarring as they are endearing. Yet even in that uncertainly there exists an element of play, as if to remind us not to take life too terribly seriously.
This transition into adulthood—indeed the very formation of personality—seems to have gotten more complicated in our contemporary world. While technology certainly brings humanity closer together, it also now influences how we shape and perceive identity. The artist notes that in contemporary life, “we can be anyone at any time… we crowdsource for identity.” This certainly adds layers of complexity in how we define our sense of self, but it also opens up exciting new possibilities. Herrity captures this complexity with kaleidoscopic figurines, whose colorful body parts might represent a different notion of identity, ready to be worn or tossed off as the mood arises: the path to adulthood becomes the path through adulthood.
This continuing, unending journey is mirrored in the very structure of Herrity’s thought process. Like individual memories, each figurine is a finished product in and of itself, but those finished pieces can be combined at will to make any vignette the artist (or collector) wishes. He often leaves his vignettes and individual works untitled; when given names, they tend to be simply descriptive (for example, Rabbit Head Doll), leaving interpretation up to the viewer. Collectively, figurines take on new contexts as they are moved around like chess pieces on the studio wall. It also underscores the notion that, even as adults, we never really stop playing.
Herrity notes one of the most important things he learned at the Corcoran was, “you have to know where you fit,” into the landscape of art history. His work has clear linkages to early 20th century Surrealism but equally important is his embrace of mass-produced repetition championed by the likes of Andy Warhol that rose to prominence several decades later. This deft understanding of context imbues meaning into forms that could quickly become one-dimensional in another artist’s hands. Not only do we give these creatures a second glance, we stick around to manipulate them, creating social groupings whose fanciful exchanges surely reflect our own internal monologues. Currently sitting on his worktable is a bag full of religious hosts (sacramental wafers) whose pliant properties are the fodder for playful exploration. What kind of sculptures he will create is still undetermined, but the increasingly religious overtones within his body of work adds an entirely new dimension to those fanciful exchanges. Get ready for a wild ride!