Where are the women?
Installation questions missing persons
By SABINA DANA PLASSE
When a societal issue touches an artist it can change his or her art and ultimately touch a viewer beyond words. When Melissa Herrington moved to Los Angles, she was struck by the disappearance of women in her community. In her new exhibition at Gallery DeNovo in Ketchum, Herrington presents "Lighght," which are new paintings and drawings and includes the installation, "The Los Angeles County Project."
"It is a changing perspective," Herrington said. "I am not relying on color. It is a direct referent of photography and a larger project about class and social issues."
The title, "Lighght," is borrowed from a minimalist poem by Aram Saroyan. Saroyan's controversial poem challenged traditional poetry because of its conceptual approach and is more than appropriate for Herrington because it plays upon words and the absence of letters.
Herrington's installation is like a graveyard, and consists of 200 pieces of black paper pinned with map pins on the wall. The charcoal drawings on black paper can be difficult to see, but that is the purpose. The drawings reflect women who used to exist and have now faded from society.
The ghostly images refer to the current list of missing women in Los Angles County, which Herrington has been researching since 2007. She updates her installation quite frequently, and the blank spaces in the installation are random, representing the ongoing issue of missing persons.
Herrington uses a grid formation for the installation, which is called the Herman grid. This type of grid creates the optical illusion of gray squares at the intersections of the black pieces of paper. This is another aspect to the work, which makes the images difficult to see and is the purpose as well as a major detail of the installation.
"People don't talk while viewing the installation," Herrington said. "It's the absence they are experiencing. I would venture to guess that there are more than double the women missing than are reported to the police department."
Herrington also points out that more often than not, the missing persons presented in the news are usually white, young and pretty—"damsels in distress." Her installation represents all women who are missing.
The installation is not for sale, and its purpose is to communicate the issue of missing women. It is an ongoing project, and can have a great deal of influence on finding missing women.
As Quickly as a Flash
By Michelle Wiener
With the eerie sense of a graveyard, one enters an installation of more than two hundred plots of silent black paper pinned to the walls. At first glance, these papers seem absent of an image. Like voids hung in a grid formation, the work reads as an aerial view of an empty city. Then, something catches the light in the corner of your eye, and an image appears from the dark surface. Drawing you closer to the paper, the portraits of women emerge. As you step back, the women recede once again, vanishing from sight, but not from mind.
Upon reading secondary text, one is informed of the identities of these women, or better yet, that these are missing identities. Stripped down to their name and photograph, one definitely reads these women as lost. The artist Melissa Herrington, through the creation of this collection of portraits, has been researching the missing women of Los Angeles County since February of 2007. Presented in this installation is the current number of missing women in Los Angeles County.
Herrington draws her portraits from the photographs provided on the Los Angeles Police Department website. The drawings, rendered on black paper in the transitory mediums of charcoal and graphite, only reinforce the women’s disappearances. The mediums are not preserved in fixative, and will fade over time.
The women too shall fade from the list if they are not found, for after being on the missing person’s list for seven years, the lost person is declared deceased.
Each portrait is only hung with two black map pins at the top corners. The papers move with the air as you walk by, fading the charcoal slowly, but also making you cautiously aware of your every move. The map pins refer back to the inability to locate these women. The color of the pins is also an aesthetic gesture about these women fading into the background, or in this case, getting lost within the system of missing persons. It is difficult to keep your eye on one portrait for a long amount of time. These portraits are read more as a group, or a human archive. However, out of respect once the secondary text in known, one tries to acknowledge the presence of each woman represented.
However, in the installation of the drawings, Herrington provides another obstacle for her viewers other than the black on black renderings. The grid formation, otherwise referred to as the Herman grid, creates an optical illusion of grey squares in the intersections. They resemble the afterimage one receives after the flash of camera occurs. Again, referring to the photograph as an identification tool, the grey illusion also symbolizes the act of disappearing, for when one looks directly at the intersection, the illusion vanishes, as quickly as a flash.
The optical illusion of the grid also tires the eye, making it hard to look at the installation. This aspect of the work has one recall the countless mailings, posters, milk cartons, and reports on missing women. It is difficult to grab our attention on these matters. Or is it?
When it comes to the news presenting these stories of missing women, it seems to always be young, pretty, white women who get their attention. Most of us can recall Laci Peterson, JonBenét Ramsey, and Natalie Holloway. It seems that the media has a missing white woman syndrome, otherwise known as the missing pretty girl syndrome. If we look at all the characteristics of the victim that receives media coverage, we will see that the sex, race, age and appearance (attractiveness) all match the archetypal and stereotypical traits of the “damsel in distress”.
One only needs to take one glance around the installation to see that Herrington is attempting to bring this issue of discrimination in the media to light. Represented here are all ages, races, creeds and classes of women. In fact, some of the portraits uncannily remind us of women we have seen and may have known in the past. The number of portraits also calls attention to fact that these are only the reported cases in Los Angeles County, and brings us to the question of what the actual number is.
With the remembrance of these being actual women depicted and not drawings of fictional characters, Herrington brings up the function of photography as a way of remembering. Herrington states:
Photography has been used for many purposes- to memorialize, propagandize, record, lament and celebrate diverse human experiences. My interest is not only in the re-representation of the photograph’s capacity to precisely render but more in a transcendence of fixed positions by way of incandescent insight. Roland Barthes proposed that ‘photography exists not to represent but to remind, “ that it is the perspective connotation, cognitive connotation… ideological connotation and ethical connotation… which introduces reasons or values into the reading of an image.’
Yes, I would agree with Herrington that photography has been used to memorialize or record moments in the past that are literally dead time in comparison to the present. However, this project is not a disparaging vigil or a group of visual aids for a “Take Back the Night” rally as its formal qualities may have some to believe. These works are harsher, because they do not let the viewers’ eyes stay fixed on them for long periods of time. They do not let you take pity or memorialize them in any way. They prefer to haunt you through the uncanny acts of repetition or déjà vu, for the amount of drawings alone lead you to believe that some of the drawings look similar to each other and or others you know. Regardless, the images stay with us even when they fade to black as we walk by.
Atlanta Journal Constitution
VISUAL ARTS: Dreamlike images of interior life by Jerry Cullum
Sunday, April 17, 2005 "Melissa Herrington: Long Shadows"
Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta Georgia April 1-30, 2005
Scenes seen in sleep are often elusive. Would-be realist paintings of such dreams are often both bad art and bad psychology, because they don't capture the loose, flickering quality of inner imagery.
By contrast, the loose array of dream symbols in Melissa Herrington's paintings feels authentic. Two girls in long dresses, fencing with blunt swords, wear masks tied with pink ribbons. A donkey-headed dancer in another painting seems like a creature midway between an Uncle Remus tale and "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Flowers, birds or an outline house appear here and there, mostly inconspicuous against the browns and ochers of the overall surface.
With the possible exception of a gold egg in a round alcove, nothing here appears made up or arbitrary. Even likely menstrual and genital references are rendered, as they would occur in a dream. The choice of alternate concave and convex panels as the surface for some paintings lends their scenes a creatively disorienting quality, whether we like the results or not.
But though Herrington's arrangements of symbols are richly her own, her means of expression resembles any number of other artists'. Her black silhouette figures dressed in antique costumes seem related to a recent lineage of evocative silhouettes that begins with Kara Walker. Her incidental symbols are more artfully understated than others.
To repeat, however: Herrington is not a copycat. She has her own vision of the interior world of myth and memory, and she communicates that vision better than most artists. But the issue of influence must be confronted. Some might say that Herrington's unconscious is shaped by the world she cares deeply about, namely, art. Painters' dreams look like bits from other paintings.
All that ought to count, ultimately, is that Herrington's artworks are real explorations of real internal experiences. Her dreamlike titles are marvels in themselves. "The Lily Confides. I Wait. Like Waves in the Sun, Drifting Girls Are Watched," "Hidden Passage. Visible Only to Those She Chooses" and "Drifting Away to High Noon, She Was Unspoken. Today Outshines" all reproduce the floating eloquence of dream language.