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The structures on view in Jacci Den Hartog’s solo exhibition at STARS, Gilded Space, seemed simultaneously like effigies of the city’s urban underground and emblems from a post-Anthropocene era. The series of organic sculptural forms, which take cues from Los Angeles’ subterranean layer, were juxtaposed with watercolor paintings to accentuate a bracing tension between the city’s industrial and biological elements. With a nod to minimalist philosophical frameworks, Den Hartog incorporates steel grids as armatures for her sculptures, subverting their order and control through the use of water-based materials that invite entropy and chance and reflecting alternative feminist futures onto our lived experience in Southern California: an environmental toppling of our industrial experiments in circumventing nature.
Works like Drift (2021) and Fluvial (2022)—which stood on pedestals throughout the front room of the gallery—are twisted constructions of dynamic color and metallic hue. Their initial visual impression is akin to something material emerging from the future, a space where the native matter has reclaimed industrial infiltrators. Descent (2022), a wild shape of curling edges and spiky tufts, reminiscent of the color of earthen clay, could be relic-like detritus from the bowels of a river, mixed and slicked with oils of the city. Transcorporeal (2022) looks like a factory remnant, an alloy forged from steel and dust, that has erupted from the guts of urban infrastructure. Likewise, Seminal (2022)—a sculpture of blunt borders and folds with hints of silver amongst a palette of light green and gold—looks like it has traversed differing ecosystems, shaped by water and wind.
The hydrocommons, vast and complicated sewer systems that bring water to Los Angeles, is a touchpoint for Den Hartog, and certainly, the armatures for the sculptures serve as befitting stand-ins for the regulated, gridded systems that govern urban planning. I cannot help but see these grids as patriarchal proxies. Den Hartog works to subvert these systems, using gardening tools to bend and warp the armatures before adding fiberglass cloth dipped in Aqua Resin to shape the refitted forms. By permitting the material to act freely on the form—the results of which are intriguing moments of chance and gravitational impulse—I see Den Hartog as unleashing the biological terrain to break down outdated modes of social organization (perhaps my wishful desire to see archaic systems topple). Though Den Hartog’s previous work has investigated the influence of water in natural environments (as in her 2015 exhibition The Etiquette of Mountains at Rosamund Felsen Gallery), here, she channels this power to symbolically deflate the city’s industrial understructure; in the work, aleatory and organic growth has overtaken more ordered systems. The sculptures (which the artist refers to as landscapes) are finished with a layer of acrylic, hand-painted on their wobbly surfaces. While minimalism (an apt comparison considering the movement’s interest in the objecthood of 3-D works) championed an innate identity and simplicity of form, these works openly reference the natural world outside of the artist’s studio, one in which strict formal rules rarely apply. Den Hartog’s process instead points to feminist artists of more recent eras who critiqued minimalist sculpture by embracing biography, nature, and the handmade: Lynda Benglis’ compounding of sculpture and painting; Eva Hesse’s consideration for the subjectivity of the body.
A series of watercolors in the second gallery more directly illustrate Den Hartog’s disruptions. In Sinking (2019), a grid of white rectangles floats within a sea of pooling blue and black pigment. The colors overflow and upend rigid contours, washing away something seemingly steadfast. One of the older pieces on view, Inundation, Orange and Black (2018), is a more literal image of a grid or net set against a sunrise-like background that begins to sag and combust within the frame, an immovable object crumbling on itself. Here again, the accumulation and gravity of water is a cataclysmic event, allowing us to envisage a potential future where our steel cities are engulfed by the very elements that we try so hard to control. It’s an intuitive leap to apply a feminist lens to these interruptions, but water, and access to it, is a feminist issue. Perhaps water, with its vital potential to sustain and create life, is a metaphor for that which might best combat patriarchy.
The era we occupy requires more than the mere observation of our shared space—it demands that we acknowledge the effect that we have on our surroundings. Through her use of water and gravity, Den Hartog’s new body of work appears as a warning: try as we might to create fabulous networks of machinery and economic and political infrastructures, we can never fully control our natural environment. But, taking it a step further, she also welcomes wildness. The work is a feminist call to overtake the symbolic and rigid structures around us—concepts that might feel as ancient as the tunnels beneath our feet.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 29.