On ViewLesley Heller
October 30 – December 21, 2019
In the middle of a small room at Lesley Heller Gallery is a slightly disconcerting object. Disconcerting because its form and features are those of a thing we should recognize, a familiar thing, not a recondite conceptual artwork: gabled roof, symmetrical windows, an unassuming exterior painted gradients of yellow and green, like the façade of an abandoned house creeping with the first faint spores of moss. Despite these domestic echoes, we can’t quite assimilate the structure before us. The windows have been set with opaque stained glass, both shielding and concealing the interior; the hinged shutters on one side are nearly closed shut, held open just a crack by a scattering of clay-molded leaves so delicate they seem to have swept in with a gust of wind. Too hermetic to be hospitable, too exposed to be impermeable, it evokes a bricolage bomb shelter or a personal mausoleum, a monolithic space where bodies are sequestered.
Rachelle Dang’s sculpture Uncertain Haven (2019) constitutes her eponymous exhibition at Lesley Heller. Like other recent works by the artist, it is based on the design of an 18th-century European botanical transport carrier—structures built to house and protect rare plant species during long voyages to and from the Pacific and the Caribbean. I spoke to Dang after seeing the show, and she told me that several versions of such carriers existed; the model that inspired the present work was designed by French botanist André Thouin for the storied naval voyages of Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. Thouin’s ideas were illustrated by Gaspard Duché de Vancy, official artist of the La Pérouse expedition, in a watercolor drawing discovered by Dang during research in France. Most other renderings of these carriers that Dang encountered, in particular the British ones, were more akin to ordinary schematic drawings or blueprints, straightforward documents bearing no superfluous flourishes. But the de Vancy picture was different: painted in washes of verdant and earthly tones, it depicts the carrier in a pastoral landscape, resting atop a patchy field of foliage on a rocky outcropping. Inspired to recreate this rococo vision, Dang translated the drawing to sculpture with alternatively uncanny and meditative results. She has even surrounded her carrier with cushiony forms sculpted of air-dry clay to resemble the opulent meadows in the source image (“plush little islands of grass,” as she calls them.) The compact, tactile masses, yielding but sturdy like lumpy sandbags, gently draw our gaze downward. In Hawaii, where Dang grew up, so much of the beauty lies at eye level, says Dang: “Fruits that have fallen, flowers, ocean waves.”
The imperial fascination with botany has a whiff of intoxicating exoticism, though Dang seems just as interested in what explorers brought to the colonies as what they took back with them. The Tahitian breadfruit, transplanted by the British to the Caribbean in the late 1700s in an effort to relieve slave malnutrition largely caused by European monocropping, was a formative discovery for the artist. This story of callous deracination underscores the double meaning of the word “uprooting”—a reminder that the Enlightenment-era quest for humanism, with its rabid intellectualization, involved a dehumanizing project of both physical and cultural displacement.
The carriers were tightly enclosed to shelter plants from cold climates, saltwater, and aquatic predators during sometimes yearlong trips at sea, and Uncertain Haven displays this sense of cloistered suffocation. Behind the stained-glass panes, the structure is boarded up with wood. Aside from a small, trapdoor-like opening on the back of the structure that reveals only darkness, we cannot see into its contents. “I completely sealed off the interior, like a sarcophagus or tomb,” explains Dang. “It’s a double entrapment.” Our experience of the installation, which fits snugly in the narrow project space, is similarly physically stifling. Faced with walls and barriers at every turn, we tiptoe carefully around the sculpture, squeezing our bodies, holding our breath. For Dang, the practice of botanical transport stirs thoughts about organisms trafficked across water, tropical seedlings as well as people (her own Chinese ancestors among them.) De Vancy’s drawing, which Dang sent to me, struck me as tranquil and romantic in a bucolic way. Unlike her sculptural rendition, it makes Thouin’s design looks much more like a movable greenhouse, with one shutter open to reveal a neat row of leafy specimens. The carrier appears to levitate placidly above the sensuous grassland. Dang’s transformation, her deliberate emphasis on the object’s seclusion and amplification of its strangeness, unearths the difficult histories that images like De Vancy’s may have buried.
In a 1992 interview with John Miller for Bomb Magazine, the maverick American artist Mike Kelley addressed the impetus behind his early birdhouse sculptures, a series he made in 1978 for his thesis show at Cal Arts that has become synonymous of Kelley’s dark and absurdist practice. Wooden and scrappy but eccentrically titled, works such as Catholic Birdhouse (1978) and Birdhouse for a Bird That Is Near and a Bird That Is Far (1978) confounded the categories of craft and art. They also boggled viewers with the possibility that a mundane and innocuous construction, a beloved hobby of retirees and woodworking neophytes, could suddenly take on new and even unnerving meaning. As Kelley reflected, “Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable.” Dang has come upon a little-known object with a deceptively simple purpose that hides centuries of discomfort. By turning it into art, she confronts us with the past.