By: Ashley Berry
Ultra Vulgar Super Fiend does not usually cover fine art, but when I came across a press release for the opening of Beth Herzhaft’s first solo photography exhibition, which opened on November 3rd at the Curve Line space in Eagle Rock, I was intrigued. The images in the press release struck me as offbeat, somewhat subversive, and strangely alluring, and that is exactly the stuff that Ultra Vulgar Super Fiend is made of.
The Curve Line Space is an unassuming art gallery in a funky little section of Eagle Rock that also functions as a framing shop for owner, Tim Yalda. When I walk into the gallery on a Thursday afternoon, the first thing I notice is the smell of sawdust. Tim and his team are working away in the back part of the space, creating frames, and the sound of the saw becomes an unusual but not off-putting soundtrack for my experience of the gallery.
The space itself is simple and almost stark. The gallery portion is essentially a square room with one wall that serves as a storefront with windows that overlook the street. Sunlight pours in and illuminates the Spartan white walls and whitewashed exposed beams of the ceiling. The room is empty except for a pair of modern chairs and cube coffee tables, also white, a dark wood Aerosonic piano positioned almost awkwardly in one corner, and the images from Herzhaft’s show placed in groups along the three windowless walls.
I had never seen an image of Beth, so I had no idea what to expect. Upon meeting her, the first thing I noticed was her stature. She carries her petite frame with a combination of security and an almost child-like lack of self-consciousness, and when she greeted me, she was soft-spoken but not shy.
Her work has many of the same qualities that she embodies as a person. The pieces from her show titled, “The Indecisive Moment”, are a collection of photographs that she has taken over the course of many years with the Contax camera that she carries with her at all times. The images focus on subject matter that one might consider to be mundane: images of a utility cord hanging from a tree limb, two different patterns of carpet meeting at the division of two rooms, or a wad of cotton candy sitting on a table. If you look at these images in a very concrete way, there is nothing particularly exciting or compelling about them, but it is Herzhaft’s perspective on these scenes that creates something nuanced and layered.
Herzhaft says that when she looks back over the pictures she has taken over her lifetime, she sees that, from the very beginning, she took “boring pictures of boring things”. It is clear, however, that Herzhaft never saw her subject matters as boring, but instead found something interesting in details that most people would never even notice. Herzhaft says that it was not so much of an evolution in technique that transformed her work, but a more developed ability to articulate for herself what was fascinating about her subject matter.
As I walked erratically around the gallery, moving to each image as it pulled me in, Herzhaft joined me on my experience of each piece. She seemed very open to my interpretations of the images and even seemed excited by some of my observations as though they had not yet occurred to her. While I am certain the she has explored each of her images in depth and has a very strong sense of all of the various elements of each piece, her intrigue was not false. It is this curiosity and openness to viewing a subject from every angle that enables Herzhaft to create such an impact with such seemingly basic images.
The fact that Herzhaft seems open to my perspective does not indicate that her work lacks a clear voice or direction; on the contrary, there is a strong tone that unifies her pieces despite the randomness of the images themselves. As I moved from piece to piece, I could not help but comment to Herzhaft that I got a sense of isolation from the images. The scenes are often desolate and static. The focal points are at the intersections of walls and from the outsides of windows. There are rarely people in the images, and when they are present, they have their backs to the viewer. The only subject matters that directly engage with the viewer are animals, and even those are actually disengaged, as they are inanimate objects like a taxidermied Bull Elk or an embroidered leopard that gazes at you from the pillow. Even the image of the trio of Wolfhounds imparts the sense that you have interrupted a private conversation.
Herzhaft is also quick to note the comedy in the images and its presence is undeniable. Many of the images evoke a sense of irony and a wry, dark humor, and these sentiments are especially evident in an image of cakes in a storefront. The cakes are on display and are viewed through the store window. One would expect them to be beautiful and enticing, but instead they are garish with fluorescent icing that has been applied far too heavily. The display case is grimy and there are dead wasps on the windowsill. The cake display is the opposite of everything that it is trying to be, and therein lies the humor.
The very fact that Herzhaft chooses such ordinary subject matter to spotlight also reveals her cheekiness. She is unconcerned with whether or not other people would have deemed these moments to be significant. There is a sort of defiance in the way that she selects her points of focus and this is what makes the images almost subversive. She will make these superficially dull viewpoints important. She will make people stop and take notice, and she will do so, because she can.