Doug Herren’s imaginative and mechanical creations on display at the Hunterdon Art Museum
In a side room on the second floor of the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, wonderful craft await. Doug Herren’s ceramic sculptures give the impression that a mad scientist, or perhaps a madder gardener, planted a cup in fertile soil outside a plant and allowed it to develop particular roots. . The cups are attached to blocks, rings, basins and spheres, all painted in cheerful and solid casein colors, a bright and welcoming and inviting wonder. Some of them squat on pedestals, the size of pets and individuals, and seem to crave interaction; others hug the corners of the small bedroom like mutant radiators. They are a little bit steampunk, more than a little Seussian, and sometimes suggest the idea of an alien from a teapot.
However, they’re not even a little spooky. Unlike so much post-industrial art, Herren’s weird devices don’t shine; they don’t even seem irritated at falling into disuse. They just stand by, patiently waiting for the right user to pass, untangle their convolutions and bring them back to life. “Doug Herren: Color-Forms / Ceramic Structures” is imbued with a powerful sense of expectation. This suggests that the machines of the past aren’t as hellish as we sometimes fear. They could be approached, and even resuscitated, if they were treated with a little affection and slapped with pastel paint.
The environment helps. The Hunterdon Art Museum occupies a historic mill. This in itself is somewhat archaic machinery which nevertheless looks impressive. A visitor who stumbles upon the Herren exhibit might imagine, for a second, that she is looking at the engine room which injects aesthetic power into the HAM exhibits.
Herren has a knack for drawing the eye to the openings and openings in his sculptures and soliciting unruly reflections on the protuberances that might fill those slits – and the crazy processes that might ensue if they were activated. Sometimes it does it with color, like the bright orange diamond-shaped hole at the top of a box that sits on cold, unmoved blue pillars. Sometimes he hints at texture, sprinkling his sculptures with rivets, buttons and plates that suggest Mixmasters gone rogue. Most rooms have at least a kitchen smell, though those stacked strainers, squashed saucers, and low-slanted tea cups don’t seem particularly suited to chefs.
The show is part of the museum’s strong fall season. The institution came out this fall with a series of powerful, sharp and witty shows repressed with post-pandemic energy, and they’re all on view until January 9. HAM has dedicated its ground floor gallery to the futuristic kinetic black. collages by Alisha B. Wormsley, who draws inspiration from tarot cards and science fiction and engenders a labyrinthine feeling by hanging her images from the ceiling. The large gallery on the second floor is warmed by the work of Marie Watt, a Senec artist who scribbles words on pink textiles and assembles them to form large patchwork banners. The top-floor group exhibit features some of Hunterdon County’s most intriguing artists, including the ever-disturbing Valerie Huhn of Flemington, who rams tacks adorned with colorful fingerprints into the pages of open books.
But it’s Herren’s modestly-sized spectacle that stays with me and resonates most deeply with the post-industrial vibe you might expect to encounter in a mill converted into a museum. Although not a Jersey guy – he’s based in Philadelphia – his work demonstrates the deep respect for machines that Garden State artists often display in their plays. What if this particular trip to the factory was far from dark and dystopian? As everyone in New Jersey knows, machines can make you feel good sometimes.
“Doug Herren: Color-Forms / Ceramic Structures” can be seen at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton through January 9. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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