Republicans love the myth of creative destruction, the idea that capitalism needs to annihilate old markets to create new wealth. In fact, Mitt Romney has made a fortune from dressing up devastation as competitive turnover. Whatever the ideological mumbo jumbo, the reality-based crowd knows that Bain Capital is no evolutionary force of nature.
For spiky poetical-political metaphors of how the 99 percent might experience such vaunted creative destruction, step into the current show at Marlborough Gallery’s Chelsea space. There, you’ll find Valerie Hegarty’s evocative faux Colonial take on America’s ongoing shitstorm of social, cultural, and economic upheaval. A set of astounding trick-the-eye feats that features the artist building up living-room walls, paintings, and furnishings only to tear them down again, the exhibition demonstrates rare skill and rarer artistic vision.
Hegarty’s installation echoes images of entropy as seen in recent pictures of American cities like New Orleans and Detroit. A show that consists of six meticulously handcrafted domestic settings that have, in their turn, been putatively degraded by fire, water, age, and rot, Hegarty’s finely wrought detritus appears to have barely survived the worst that man and nature can deliver. Titled “Altered States” as a play on both the U.S. and Paddy Chayefsky’s novel and the film of the same name (the 1980 movie starred William Hurt as a drug-addled scientist who devolves into an evolutionary pre-hominid), Hegarty’s show purports (per the press release) to be as much about transformation as it is about destruction. But the fact that the artist’s unnamed disaster produces mostly ruins invokes instead an I Am Legend–style dystopia arising from the devastation.
Although it’s tempting to consider Hegarty’s installations as a single work—the pieces nearly cohere into one uniquely trashed living room—the exhibition is in fact a collection of individual dazzlers combining to create a scenario that is part end-of-the-world prophecy and part Natural History Museum. Take Headless George Washington With Table (Lansdowne Portrait), a sculpture made of a shattered board and a replica of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait (a version of the painting was actually rescued from a fire in the White House during the War of 1812). The figure’s partially melted head wends down from the scorched canvas onto the gallery floor like a shriveled mask (of our democracy?). Another work, Shipwrecked Armoire With Barnacles, features a piece of period furniture turned into crustacean-studded driftwood via the magic of paint, glue, sand, and Magic-Sculpt.
But no piece in this terrific show debunks the age-old trope of primeval rebirth with more unstinting candor than Rug With Grass. An imitation Aubusson rug disintegrated into compost for weeds and flowers, this sculpture takes the romance right out of the homilies—religious and political—surrounding life after death. Here, the fabrication decisively approximates the real thing—a wormy view of life after the flood, it’s nearly impervious to preachy idealization.