Nancy Herman: Totems

Nancy Herman Painting

The major part of Nancy Herman’s small but select show at her gallery in Narberth covers a single long wall, but it says a great deal about looking, and the how and why of what we see. Its subject is, indeed, the human interaction with the world, not as it appears to us but as it did to its first known witnesses on our continent, Native Americans. The suite—three pairings of paintings in oil side by side with fabric hangings, each pair a variant of the same composition—is based mostly on the imagery of a California tribe, the Esselen of Tassajara, like most tribes of the region virtually if not actually extinct. (There’s a seventh hanging in the series, a variant on the first set, Howls From the Forest of the Night, which hangs in the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg, and, Herman says, her personal favorite.) All but the first of the sets are based on Esselen designs, redacted through a modern sensibility, and so connecting past and present, adding to what is portrayed the passage of time and the sin of loss.

The set of Howls is Herman’s own composition, though permeated by her general response to Native design. The totemic figure that occupies its center, symmetrical in shape, suggests both of a head and a figure. On each side are paired hands, each set upraised. An animal head appears on the upper left quadrant, and a swooping bird opposite it. At the very top are representations of the phases of the moon. The absence of perspective makes each image iconic, but also gives each its place as a unity.

Both versions of Howls deploy the same imagery, but the fabric hanging in a rich embroidery that simultaneously complicates and flattens its design, the shapes entwining and wandering toward abstraction. The emphasis here is on texture rather than line, shape-shifting rather than primitivized clarity. The fabric sets, that is, work the Native designs toward a Modernist sensibility that questions while it depicts, both referencing and reconceiving the aboriginal imagery. It honors the source while acknowledging the distance which we inevitably depart from.

The second paired set, Fear: Center, depicts in the oil version a crouching child who faces a wolf, each staring at the other in profile across an indeterminate space. There is fear in the child’s eye, but something like curiosity in the wolf’s, not that of observation or appraisal but simply the recognition of species distance where instinct is not aroused, a distance between the human and the not-human that shows us the dawn of object-consciousness in the former. What the child sees is clear in its fright; what the wolf does is incommunicable to us, but obviously a different world. Yet in the look of each something is spoken, even if language does not result, and in that exchange Herman offers us what both connects us to the world and simultaneously alienates us from it. Below the paired figures is a gaping, crocodile-like mouth with bared teeth, evidently on one level a projection of the boy-child’s fear; above them an elongated reptilian head emerges from the right-hand corner, its mouth all but closed and its visible bridge of teeth resting, with the self-containment perhaps of an animal at ease. The fabric hanging beside it, again richly variegated in texture and color and more abstract in effect, has a looping train that appears to connect boy and wolf, suggesting what their common root in animal nature.

Rather different is the set entitled She Who Watches. A large maternal figure dominates both the oil and fabric versions, carrying a fetus near birth in a large, pouchlike womb. The woman is in a semi-crouch with upraised arms and hands, and the fetus, fully formed, is in the same position, its face already thrust into the world with an expression of personality and comprehension. The woman’s head, almost as large as her torso, has instead an expression of shock and alarm, as if something unforeseen were coming from her, and her figure, still partly animal with ears atop her head, were giving birth to one fully human. In the fabric version, the woman’s face betrays sheer confusion and something close to terror, with pairs of small figures depending from the sides of her head, rather like miniature astronauts swaying from a mother ship into space.

Totems, then, suggests as a whole a progression, although not a simple temporal one from mammalian evolution to human form, intelligence, and emotion. The change is traumatic on both ends—“end” in both aspects of the term, as that which is being transcended, left behind, and that which is aspirational toward. The process is never complete and the trauma never fully resolved, for we remain animal even as we enter humanity, the only creature that knows it lives and hence must die.

There is of course a middle term in this discourse, without which it would not have been possible and which it ultimately exists to retrieve and renew; namely, the art of the vanished tribe on which it rests. Herman has honored it, but so did an earlier artist, Robinson Jeffers. who visited the same cave at Tassajara in the late 1920s and left his own tribute. If Herman has given those anonymous painters new life, Jeffers has given them voice too, and so, together, a full being in art:


Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture. There’s no one to say
Whether the brown shy quiet people who are dead intended
Religion or magic, or made their tracings
In the idleness of art; but over the division of years these careful
Signs-manual are now like a sealed message
Saying: “Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws. All hail
You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters
In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down
And be supplanted; for you also are human.”

The viewer will be further rewarded with a number of other works on adjacent and rear walls that show aspects of her superb technique in a variety of genres, particularly mask imagery in needle felting, and a large silk screen print, Elephant Requiem, which forcefully represents not only the world we have lost but the one we continue to lose every day. Herman is a preserver, and in a world where so much is casually destroyed, she reminds us that art is what challenges us to keep, to remember, and to value the truly irreplaceable.

About Robert Zaller 91 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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