The Beat goes on

Smith Andersen Editions presents work by godfather of West Coast assemblage art

The old adage about one man's junk being another man's treasure is one Southern California artist George Herms has taken to heart.

For more than 50 years, Herms has been making collage, assemblage and sculpture from discarded, everyday objects. He has outlived his mentor, artist Wallace Berman, and become a sort of last guru of the Beat Generation. A small but representative exhibition of Herms' recent work will be on display at Palo Alto's Smith Andersen Editions from May 16 through June 20.

But weren't the Beats poets and writers? There were, especially in California, members of the group who were invested in both poetry and the visual arts. Herms, a dropout from UC Berkeley's school of engineering, met Berman and his sometime creative collaborator Robert Alexander in Los Angeles in 1955, and a whole new world opened up for him. It was a time of free-form experimentation with materials and techniques and a Dada-like approach in which anything and everything could be considered art. Without any formal training, Herms experimented freely in many forms, including painting and printing, set design and photography, poetry and theater.

"He was friends with Bruce Conner, Allen Ginsberg and Jay De Feo," explained Smith Andersen owner Paula Kirkeby, reeling off the names of some of California's luminary writers and visual artists of the Beat Generation. "George is definitely on his own trip," she added. Herms visited Smith Andersen's fine-art printing press a number of years ago, an experience Kirkeby said was "too much fun."

For this exhibition, Herms and Kirkeby together selected just seven pieces. The Los Angeles-based artist is also scheduled to return to Palo Alto for a private two-day residency with master printer Kathryn Kain later this month. Whatever he creates during that time will then be on display in the gallery's printing press area.

"He may do something about morning glories," said Kain, explaining that working with Herms is a spontaneous and unpredictable adventure that may involve stencils, photographs or even placing actual flowers on the printed surface.

That sort of quixotic approach to creativity can be seen in Herms' works currently installed in the gallery. In "Storyboard for Radio Show," the artist has gathered hundreds of images from magazines and carefully glued them onto a board. There are flowers, butterflies, images of the galaxy and watch faces, all jumbled together in a riot of color, shape and form. Added to the two-dimensional puzzle of pictures are actual small objects: watch parts, beads, bottle caps. The work is entrancing; it invites the viewer to lean in close to identify the images and imagine why the artist chose them and what unifying message they might contain. Yet in interviews, Herms has explained that he selects his images not by what they represent, but rather by shape and color. Although the collage is titled, Herms says he begins working without an overarching concept or story, claiming, "The pieces tell me what to do."

The artist's fondness for improvisation and jazz music is evident in his sculptural pieces, where unlikely parts are joined to form a cohesive, if cryptic, whole. In "Receptor," a deconstructed wooden box serves as a base for such disparate objects as a rusted trivet, melted and mangled compact discs, plastic and wooden beads and a medicine bottle. Unlike traditional sculpture such as stone carving and bronze casting, which involve a taking away of materials, Herms works in an additive manner and says all of his materials are found in the environment.

"The found object and what can happen to it through George's work is amazing and has a certain elegance," Kirkeby oberved.

There is also a good amount of humor in Herms' work, a fact noted by art critic Dave Hickey. Unlike the dark messages of the tableaux created by his fellow Beat era assemblage artist Ed Kienholz, Herms' work "revolves around wit and puns." In "Rake," for example, metal mesh, rusted blades and plastic beads are anchored by -- of course -- the head of an old and heavily used lawn rake. It's fun, perplexing and completely characteristic of a Dada or Surrealist take on life. Speaking about Berman in a 2006 interview, Herms might as easily have been describing his own art: "It's curiosity, a love of the unknown and a fearlessness. It's not about seeing something you already know about or are comfortable with."

As he approaches his 80th birthday, Herms continues to work as both a visual and performance artist. One of the most prolific artists of the Beat Generation, his work has been shown in dozens of group and solo exhibitions, and he is the recipient of several prestigious fellowships, including the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Not bad for a guy who left Berkeley after just six weeks.

Still, Herms is not as well-known as his Beat counterparts, a fact that Kirkeby explains is because, "This is the West Coast -- the East Coast had its own scene."

There will be a public reception for the artist on Saturday, May 30, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Palo Alto gallery. Herms will be on hand to answer questions and to sign copies of a two-volume catalog of his work, titled, "George Herms: The River Book." The event will be an opportunity to get up close and personal with an icon from a storied era in American cultural history. And, as Kirkeby predicted, "The viewer will leave with a different attitude about a rake or a gear."

What: George Herms exhibit

Where: Smith Andersen Editions, 440 Pepper Ave., Palo Alto

When: May 16-June 20, with a reception Saturday, May 30, 3-5 p.m.. Gallery hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and by appointment.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to smithandersen.com or call 650-327-7762.

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