Fifth Avenue is getting to be just like a genuine big city art district, and that means sometimes there’s actually “buzz on the street.” On the avenue a couple of weeks ago, everybody at the Arcade galleries was talking about the show at TAG. What excited folks seemed to be the yarn, in different colors, that madly crisscrossed the walls and ceilings tying one piece of art to another. Without knowing the premise, you knew what to do—follow the strings. There had to be a reason why the pieces were threaded together.
And there was. TAG’s show documents the results of a collaboration between two San Francisco artists, Jonn Herschend and Michael McConnell. Over the course of a year, one artist would create something and the other would respond. The one who started would answer the second piece, and so forth, producing a series of works going on as long as it made sense. They brought 10 series to TAG that run from four to 15 pieces in length. Certainly, the exhibit has succeeded in attracting people to the gallery in large numbers, but it has also shed light on such issues as influence and identity in art.
The two artists start with distinct styles. Herschend does loose, abstracted renditions of common objects. McConnell fills his work with a menagerie of iconic animals (bears, deer, rabbits, foxes, zebras, birds) rendered in fairly fine detail. Their collaborative pieces show the push and pull of these different styles.
The best way to understand the process is to follow a series for a few steps. The longest starts with a piece by Herschend, called “Beer Pints,” a gouache of several cylinders partially covered by a mysterious black cloud. McConnell transforms those beer cans into tree stumps, and he replaces the mysterious cloud with a chubby bear. (The title, “Bear Cans,” reveals the pun.) Herschend responds with a piece that isolates the cylindrical shape, and then McConnell returns with a group of bears, but gives them cartoon speech balloons with the wood grain pattern found in his tree trunks. In the next image, Herschend takes the black cloud of his first image and reshapes it into a bear curled on a couch in a piece called “Hibernate.” The series goes on like this for 10 more sheets, eventually working in references to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” among other things.
As you pick your way through the sequences, following yarn from place to place, you begin to lose track of which artist is which. Herschend adapts some of McConnell’s animals and a bit of his tighter draftsmanship, and McConnell paints more loosely, closer to Herschend’s abstract style. This confusion makes a point about influence itself, especially among peers—it can prove very hard to trace who influenced whom. At the time they made these paintings, it may have been obvious to the artists who was responding to what, but when viewers look at the results, the styles and themes look more like possessions held in common.
The juxtaposition and interplay of styles also reveals more about each artist’s content. Herschend’s shapes, for instance, are abstract enough to contain a multitude of potential forms and references, some of which come out as these series progress. The creeping ambiguity of artistic identity suggests a new way of looking at the animals in McConnell’s work. You realize that one species may not be so different from another, but that they share characteristics, perhaps in their shape or a sense of personality that comes across.
Overall, this exhibit appears to be a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The individual pieces are essentially sketches. The key to this project was for the artists to work in an improvisational way. The best sequences come when you feel a rapid-fire intellectual rhythm created by quick linkages of pictures and words from one piece to the next. Herschend and McConnell go back and forth in these passages, like musicians trading fours.
The excitement the show stirred up probably has a lot to do with the impact of stringing yarn through the gallery. Without even looking at the art, it creates a visceral pleasure by filling a space that’s usually left empty. Herschend and McConnell give you a reason to dive in and look at the details. The payoff comes from close observation, where you experience the rhythmic crackle generated by images, shapes and words that bounce from one piece to the next.