In a side room on the second floor of the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, marvelous contraptions await. Doug Herren’s sculptures in ceramic look as though a mad scientist, or perhaps a madder gardener, planted a mug in fertile soil outside a factory and allowed it to grow peculiar roots. The cups are attached to blocks, rings, basins and spheres, all painted in cheerful, solid Casein colors, bright and welcoming and inviting wonder. Some of them squat on pedestals, pet-sized and peculiar, and seem to crave interaction; others hug the corners of the small chamber like mutant radiators. They’re a tiny bit steampunk, more than a little Seussian, and sometimes suggestive of a space alien’s idea of a teapot.
They are, however, not even a bit sinister. Unlike so much post-industrial art, Herren’s odd appliances don’t glower; they don’t even seem resentful about falling into disuse. They simply stand at the ready, patiently waiting for the right user to stroll by, untangle their convolutions and crank them back to life. “Doug Herren: Color-Forms/Ceramic Structures” is suffused with a powerful feeling of waiting. It suggests that the machines of the past aren’t quite as infernal as we sometimes fear. They might be approached, and even revived, if they were treated with a little affection, and slapped with pastel paint.
The surroundings help. The Hunterdon Art Museum occupies a historic mill. It is, itself, a bit of antiquated machinery that looks impressive, nonetheless. A visitor who stumbles upon Herren’s exhibition might imagine, for a second, that she is looking at the engine room that pumps aesthetic power into the HAM exhibitions.
Herren has a knack for drawing the eye toward the apertures and openings in his sculptures, and soliciting unruly thoughts about what protuberances might fill those slots — and what berserk processes might ensue if they were activated. Sometimes he does this with color, like the bright orange rhomboid hole atop a box that sits on pillars of cool and impassive blue. Sometimes he insinuates with texture, dotting his sculptures with rivets, knobs and plates that suggest Mixmasters gone rogue. Most of the pieces have at least a whiff of the kitchen about them, even if these stacked colanders, squashed saucers and impractically angled teacups do not seem particularly chef-friendly.
The show is part of the museum’s strong fall season. The institution has come out swinging this autumn with a series of forceful, pointed and witty shows full of pent-up post-pandemic energy, and they are all viewable until Jan. 9. HAM has devoted its ground floor gallery to the kinetic Black Futurist collages of 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 big gallery on the second floor is warmed up by the work of Marie Watt, a Seneca artist who scrawls words on pink textiles and stitches them together into grand patchwork banners. The group show on the top floor features some of the most intriguing artists in Hunterdon County, including Flemington’s ever-unsettling Valerie Huhn, who drives tacks adorned with colorful fingerprints into the pages of open books.
But it is Herren’s modest-sized show that stays with me, and resonates most profoundly with the post-industrial vibe you might expect to encounter in a mill repurposed as a museum. While he’s not a Jersey guy — he’s based in Philadelphia — his work demonstrates the deep respect for machinery that Garden State artists often display in their pieces. So what if this particular trip to the factory is far from gloomy and dystopian? As every New Jerseyan knows, sometimes machines can make you feel good.
“Doug Herren: Color-Forms/Ceramic Structures” can be seen at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton through Jan. 9. Visit hunterdonartmuseum.org.
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