In her upcoming solo exhibition, Vanitas, Brooklyn-based artist, Valerie Hegarty explores the ephemeral, transitory nature of memory. Focusing on the passage of time, she shares with the viewer her own spin on the 16th and 17th century Dutch vanitas motif.
Vanitas are still-life paintings of various objects intended to illustrate the inevitability of death and the futility of earthly possessions. Images of skulls, extinguished candlesticks, soap bubbles on the verge of popping, pocket watches stopped at midnight, and wilting flowers all act as reminders of mortality.
Hegarty is most notably known for her large-scale installations and illusionistic wall works. Her practice, the self-coined “reverse archeology” technique, combines collage with reductive techniques like scraping and stripping. Paper is painted, cut, and adhered directly to the wall. This process is repeated, overlapping and hiding sheet after sheet of paper behind the last. She’ll then peel back each individual sheet revealing the layers beneath. In some cases, she strips as far back as the initial canvas while leaving other areas untouched.
The end result is a three-dimensional illusion described by the artist as the “material memory of space.” The varied layers of paper suggest the passing of time and impermanence, like a fading memory or dream slowly coming in and out of focus. To properly enjoy these pieces the viewer must be willing to move — step back, step close, and step further back again.
From a distance, it is hard not to view the work as a portal, beckoning and inviting you to walk through the wall. Upon closer inspection, we can see the paper’s frayed edges, peeling and curling off the canvas. These shredded fragments bring us back, grounding us in the present and the world around us.
Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum (my subway stop), depicts a fragment of the subway stop closest to Hegarty’s home. Boarded Up Window, Brooklyn is based on the different neighborhoods she’s had a studio in. Childhood Home: Mom’s Bedroom Wallpaper reaches the farthest back in time showing a reproduction of her current perception of her mother’s bedroom wall. The artist recreates the bright, 1960’s, floral pattern of pink and purple roses tied with ribbon she remembers from her childhood, as well as the layer of blue paper pasted on top, representing her parent’s remodel.
“At some point after I moved out, my parents’ renovated their bedroom, removing all the wallpaper and painting the walls blue,” she says. A reminder that our memories, at least how we perceive them, change over time. In her art, the artist captures the anxious feeling of change. She’s created a visual translation of nostalgia and loss.
Hegarty explained that although the pieces each stem from a significant personal memory, she hopes this cannon of work can transition to a broader, more universal sense of longing and loss. Furthermore, she hopes to capture the anxiety that stems from having no control over aging or the passage of time. It’s hard not to feel a sense of anxiety when looking at these pieces.
During our interview, Hegarty discussed her intention that the viewer might see these works through the lens of the impact gentrification has on neighborhoods. With Boarded Up Window, Brooklyn, she describes, “Generally, the artists arrive just before gentrification, and often the familiar site of a boarded up window disappears right before the artists are displaced and as new development ensues.”
Neighborhoods undergoing gentrification may feel like they are becoming fresher, newer, or younger (like a fresh coat of blue paint over faded wallpaper), but this phenomenon also means histories are being eroded, and, in some cases, completely erased.
Like living with ghosts, a neighborhood’s collective memory means the stories and experiences of its residents come together to shape its identity. But over time this identity becomes only a memory as it’s altered and hidden behind new ones.
The newness, like a mold, slowly spreads — first the appearance of boarded up windows and ‘for sale’ signs appear, then locally owned corner stores close, eventually leading to entire communities of residents being displaced. And yet, there will always be remnants of neighborhoods past, waiting for someone to peel back the layers to unearth the lingering memories.
Both Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum (my subway stop) and Boarded Up Window, Brooklyn seem to float on the wall, portals to their past. The layers of paper, cut perfectly to scale and stripped back, analogous to the loss and decay of what was once there. Similarly to Mother’s Bedroom, the paper peels back inviting us to consider what artifact is buried beneath.
Just as memories fade in our own minds, the collective memory of a community fades and disappears over time. Our bodies decaying and the changing of neighborhoods cause a loss of control and a perceived inability to prevent these things. Hegarty uses her “reverse archeology” to explore what was lost and recalls the nostalgia, however bittersweet, one feels when trying to remember: “An archeology of the past, the recreation impulse taps into the power of make-believe where I create a space of a remembered place — which I can re-enter and excavate in order to discover something about the present. In this way, I become my personal history’s creator, archaeologist, and historian — a concept that can extend out to our dynamic relationship to the past.”
Portals to the Past: Valerie Hegarty’s Vanitas will open this fall at Burning Water Gallery in New York.
All images from Burning in Water Gallery, courtesy of the artist.
Amy Stockdale is a New York City based writer, consultant, and arts administrator. Specialized in Modern American Art, she is also passionate about music and dance. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Stockdale studied Art history and criticism at Fordham University Lincoln Center. Follow her on Instagram at @am.e.stockdale.