"Sometimes I fly like an eagle but with the wings of a wren"
— Anne Sexton
HANDless: New Work by Melissa Herrington
by Katey Schultz
If it is possible to paint in metaphor, Melissa Herrington’s HANDless is surely the epitome of this challenge. The twenty-one paintings installed in a brick-like formation at Gallery DeNovo work in concert to suggest the story of a “girl without hands” whose power lies in her perseverance and the anomaly of her condition. Individually, each panel conveys a distinct mood by altered pastures of blue, black, purple, and white. Other colors from the natural world provide contrast from piece to piece, creating a familiar feeling across unfamiliar terrain.
The strength of this body of work lies in such unfamiliarity. Herrington’s paintings are not immediately intuited, as layers of resin rise from the wood panels giving them a three-dimensional quality. Using her uniquely lyrical language, amorphous forms, lines, and openings, her paintings direct the eye inward and outward, ensnaring the viewer. This movement is immediately engaging on physical, emotional, and intellectual levels. It feels like visiting the underworld of déjà vous, where one walks carefully, trying to negotiate the rules of social conduct.
The work in HANDless is imbued with as much mystery as it is narrative. A sculptural installation, also featured in the main gallery, includes abstract trees with living moss—“skin” that keeps growing and changing color from light green to rich brown. Inspired by the poetry of Anne Sexton and Margaret Atwood, Herrington blended the narratives of their poems with her own aesthetic to conceive this body of work exploring the subterranean world of gender and transformation.
The undercurrent of gender entrapment and the determination of the “girl without hands” raise the stakes of this exhibition. Similar to the girl, a flowering tree also suffers amputation. Life still pulses through both, but they are permanently altered. In the underworld, the girl comes face-to-face with vulnerability and, in a parallel predicament, the tree risks extinction if it cannot transform. Together, they are reborn to the topside world, made anew on their own terms.
Herrington’s level of skill with challenging mediums, such as resin and plant material, not to mention her debut with three-dimensional sculpture, are all a testament to her endurance as an artist. Though not literally handless herself, the message here is clear—Herrington has also been remade by this latest body of work, an exemplar of the fact that metaphor has the power to transform.
Katey Schultz is an arts writer specializing in essays about the creative process. Her work has appeared in national and international art publications.