Working in relative obscurity on a ranch on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, Carol Hepper came to the attention of curators at the Guggenheim Museum for her large scale sculptures that used the indigenous materials of her surroundings—animal hides, bones and willow branches. Subsequently included in that museum's important survey of young sculptors (1983) she has gone on to garner attention for her sculpture that explores the paradoxes between body and spirit and nature and culture.
Hepper grew up believing that objects contained power. She observed the way objects such as buffalo skulls or clay pipes were imbued with a mystical force in Native American rituals. The similarities between these beliefs and those of Catholicism were an early source of fascination for her. Both religions emphasize performance and ritual, celebrating variations of blood, smoke and body piercing. Even the differences between the two—that one is practiced out-of-doors and is bound to nature while the other takes place indoors, bound to an institution—Hepper found intriguing.
As an artist, this deep-seated belief in the power of objects was the wellspring from which her ideas flowed. Today, after more than fifteen years of art making, the notion that these objects can have a transformative effect on the viewer continues to be the primary philosophy that informs her art.
The relationship of the external to the internal has fascinated Hepper since childhood. Witnessing the slaughter of an animal and seeing the organs, veins and bones exposed, she understood how its internal workings related to the world at large. Humankind, she realized, fashions their world after the body. This interest in the body, how it works and the parallels between it and manmade structures, has been instrumental in Hepper's development.
Although somewhat isolated early in her career, Hepper was not totally unaware of developments in the art world. A college professor involved in Fluxus introduced her to the art of Joseph Beuys, with whom she felt an immediate kinship. In addition to a common interest in object making and exploring the spiritual in art, Hepper shared with Beuys a personal myth that had its genesis in her interaction with indigenous peoples. Later, artists such as Lee Bontecou and Eva Hesse interested Hepper, particularly their unorthodox use of materials.
The earliest work in the exhibition, Pierced/Pegged, 1981, was completed after Hepper observed a Sun Dance of the Sioux tribe. One might say this work abstractly emulates the piercing of the skin that occurs during the ceremony. At the time, Hepper was also observing the primary structures of the plains—particularly teepees—as well as a small home made out of railroad ties covered with tin that her grandfather had made. On a formal level one can see the connection between Pierced/Pegged and a freestanding, handmade building. However, this piece is too small to be entered and there—fore the space it encloses is more psychological than literal. Hepper's interest in parallels between systems is clearly seen in Pierced/Pegged which also exists as a metaphor for the body, a huge lung, alive with its own breath.
After Hepper moved to New York City in 1985, she began to view it "as a manmade, living organism." She notes, for example, that when "constructing buildings, one first raises the skeletal structure, then covers it with skin. Inside is the plumbing, the nervous system, the organs and the eyes."(1)
At this time, her work also began to assimilate attributes of city living. Her first studio was near the Fulton Street fish market, and before long she was combining fish skins with willow, expanding on ideas of containment. Like the large hide pieces, Hepper made receptacles that created internal spaces, but with the fish skin pieces, she enlarged the holes. Thus, three visual elements were at work: the planes of the skin, the linear aspects of the willow and the holes which allow one visually to pass into the void. The skin simultaneously served as a receptacle, a barrier and a passageway into the interior.
Skin is rich in metaphor, for it acts not only as an outward covering and boundary for the body, but is the container that holds the soul. It is through the literal use of skin (to evoke its metaphorical counterpart) that Hepper layers her work with meaning and psychological impact.
It was shortly after the fish skin pieces that Hepper's work grew in two directions. She continued to work with skin and found objects, stylistically and conceptually extending ideas explored in earlier work. But with Snare, 1988, Hepper diverges from her previous works by pulling off the skin to get at what lies beneath. A number of pieces from this series were completed during her residency at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire where Hepper used maple collected in the surrounding woods.
The germ of the idea for Snare must have been present when Hepper was doing works such as Pierced/Pegged, for prior to adding the layer of skin, she meticulously photographed them, and later studied the structure of the piece. But Snare is not only about underlying structure, it also builds on notions of containment and pure physicality, particularly where the wood is bund led together in a tight core and then released in the three "baskets" sprouting out the top. This yin/yang effect is enhanced even further with the confluence of abstraction and illusion, for the baskets impart a utilitarian feel to the piece—referencing perhaps snow shoes, traps or nets. At the same time, it is ambiguously abstract with the airiness of the baskets giving a wonderful linearity to this piece, a solid record of a drawing made in air.
While experimenting with ways to achieve the dramatic tension and release of Snare, Hepper made an important breakthrough in a piece called Conduit, 1988, in which she took willow, bundled it, bent it and held it in place with a plumbing joint. This idea spawned a number of important large sculptures including the three in this exhibition Jackstraws, 1989, Cross Bend, 1989, and Physical Geography, 1991. These pieces continue Hepper's interest in using natural materials to create structure. One can feel the energy it took to bend the willow into these configurations. Plumbing joints, incorporated as the fulcrum which holds the piece together, have a literal use imbued with metaphorical meaning nature tamed by man. For Hepper this analogy is particularly germane; the history of the West is a history of man's attempt to control nature by harnessing its raw energy.
Within this format, Hepper plays with structure—Cross Bend crosses itself, Physical Geography loops about and then surges into the air, while in Jackstraws, she has pulled out the central spine and let the piece collapse on itself. Simultaneous references to the body, particularly the veins and capillaries of the circulatory system and other types of closed circuitry, electrical or plumbing, are also present.
The leap from using willow to copper tubing was a logical extension of Hepper's philosophy. Visually, copper emulates the willow, but conceptually it references culture not nature. Physically, it has allowed her to increase the scale of her sculptures (the size of previous works had been determined by the length of the willow) and to have more freedom in the configurations.
Vertical Void, 1994, is a beautiful example of the rhythmic line Hepper can achieve with this material. Resting on a single plumbing joint, the piece rises up out of the ground, a delicate dance of movement and form. Indeed, with the bund les of copper tubing swirling around a central void, one has the distinct impression that they are not looking at a sculpture as much as the abstracted residue of Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils. It is energy held in abeyance.
The body of work in which Hepper couples skins with found objects constitutes a separate line of development. (It is interesting that, although she made the first piece in 1989, she did not exhibit until 199, probably because they are of a much more personal nature.) The idea behind these objects initially seems quite simple. However, this apparent simplicity belies the complexity that gives these pieces their conceptual depth. In selecting objects, Hepper chooses those that inspire multiple interpretations, often referencing the body. Because Hepper often allows her material to dictate form, the range and diversity of these small wall pieces is remarkable.
Untitled, 1989, the first of these skin pieces, comprises a blade set against a board and wrapped with a piece of cowhide. The blade remains a blade, but can be read on a number of other levels—as an X marking the spot, a negation, the outstretched arms and legs of a person (the well-known drawing by Leonardo DaVinci of a man in a similar configuration comes to mind), or as the prop that gives energy and motion to a plane.
In all of these works, the hide both obscures and delineates the object, imbuing it with a powerful psychological presence. Seen together, they cover a range of emotions and impact from the fetal connection felt between the two dolls in Siblings, 1990, to the quiet beauty and spirituality of Angel, 1990, made from deer ears placed over a hat form. Hepper sees, in this work, an analogy between the angels of Christianity and the Native American spirit guides that take the form of animals. In works like Bruised Lung, 1990 and Heart Attack, 1991, the skin functions less as a barrier than a window as if one has x-ray vision to see the lungs and heart within the body. Saint, 1993, made from chicken bones, brings to mind a medieval reliquary housing a bone or body part of a saint, which could perhaps perform miracles, alluding to the idea that objects are imbued with power.
Some of Hepper's works have a subtle humor. For instance, Swiss Flies, 1993, was made during a residency in the country of Liechtenstein, where she had been provided with a large studio. Because the country is so clean, Hepper was unable to work with found objects—except for the flies from the barns near her studio. Here, Hepper has taken the flies, placed them in the V formation of migrating geese and set them against a blue and white background creating a small landscape. As she has with a number of previous works, she uses the literal to allude to metaphor. (Flies, which can fly, become the stand-ins or surrogates for the birds, which also fly.)
Hanna, 1993, is both a departure point and culmination of these skin pieces. It is composed of a found object—in this case a bronco saddle—sandwiched between two cow hides. It is also freestanding and of a larger scale. For Hepper, a saddle is rich with history. It is a connection between the animal and the human. But it is also the tool that the human uses to "break" or domesticate the horse. Splayed as it is across the external structure, which is a garment rack, it both resembles the female body and alludes to the crucifixion.
It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, "Even a thought, even a possibility can shatter us and transform us." Carol Hepper, it seems, fully understands notions of transformation. It is not only her selection of objects and materials that have their own history, it is also her manipulation of them that results in their metamorphosis. It is through these metamorphoses that her sculptures come to contain their mystery.
Curator of Contemporary American Art
1. Correspondence from the artist, July 5, 1995.