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American Art Magazine
American Art Magazine

I was invited by American Art (a Smithsonian magazine) to contribute an essay about my projects in the Brooklyn Museum period rooms for their theme of destruction.

Please contact me if you'd like a pdf of the article.

Valerie Hegarty

Alternative Histories
Three Activations in the Brooklyn Museum’s Early American Period Rooms

I am often asked about the tropes of decay and destruction in my work. Is it a fetishization of ruins? A nihilistic worldview? A disrespect for the masters of art history? A diss to our founding father? A subversion? A provocation?

I often cite Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire series as a reference.1 Painted in 1833–36, the grouping of five paintings appears as a moral tale or warning and depicts a landscape going through a process of discovery by man and the resultant growth of civilization, followed by corruption, destruction, and decay. The final painting in the series is where I find a touchstone for my work. Desolation depicts the aftermath of the fall of the empire. The moon is rising and the city is in ruins. Nature has reclaimed its place in, over, and around the broken architecture. There is no sign of life, except for a few birds nesting in the remains of a column. In this scene I see a space of self-destruction and a possible fertile ground for rebirth if we heed the lessons of the past. Today Cole’s series becomes more potent as man’s destruction extends from civilizations to the natural world itself.

My paintings, sculpture, and installations often appear as if a destructive event or the slow process of natural erosion has occurred within the gallery, or within an artwork itself.2 My early installation work involved a process I called reverse archaeology, in which I glued layers of painted paper to the gallery walls and floor only to scrape them back to create a material memory of the room (fig. 1). Viewers walking into the white cube gallery or museum would do a double-take when they caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a decaying familiar interior: a gutted kitchen, an abandoned hotel lobby, a stripped bedroom, a crumbling bathroom. These works were based on the places I lived in at the time or during the past. The installations were similar to paintings like Cole’s: man-made environments that were in a projected state of their ruinous future.

In addition to war and catastrophe, inevitably the places in which we live will be destroyed by the more banal mechanisms of progress: razed to make way for gentrification, renovated to appear new again, or simply disappearing from our lives through our nomadic existences. I wanted my early installations to appear to “hover” in a space between being here and not being here. I was interested in their uncanniness as defined by Freud, where something that is familiar also appears strange.3 They were like glimpses through a foggy window of a vision from the past or possibly from the future.

After a show was over, I continued to scrape the walls and floors until all layers had been removed and then discard the remnants of the work. The action recalls the description of the peeling of wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a response by the narrator to oppression and anxiety.4 More generally, the layering of painted paper and its peeling can reference the act of erasure. As in Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), the erasure, or destruction, is a creative act in itself. Rauschenberg obtained both permission and the drawing from de Kooning, who was one of his idols. But the erasure caused an outcry. Some said that he had erased a masterpiece, removing it from art history. Some saw it as a protest against abstract expressionism, as a pure act of destruction, or as defacement of property. Others interpreted it as a gesture of destroying his master in order to make way for his own work and the work of his generation. Yet when Rauschenberg was asked what the gesture was for him, he replied that it was poetry.5

Themes of destruction and ruin seem to be prevalent today in artworks, but art history shows that ruins have always been an obsession on the part of artists and viewers alike. Recently, the term ruin porn has been introduced to describe the proliferation of photography that documents the decay of large industrialized areas where the damage is self-inflicted, such as in Detroit and Berlin. The blogger James Griffioen reportedly coined the phrase during a 2009 interview with Vice, in which he criticized photographers for trivializing the causes of urban decay.6

Despite the controversy surrounding the coinage, it avoids the question, why are we so fascinated? In Cole’s series, the postapocalypse contains no humans, but we are faced with the reality that we as humans may survive long enough to inhabit a postapocalyptic world. David Collings considers the terror of this reality in Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change: “Normally when we think of ruins, we do not imagine that the people who built them still live on in them; . . . In contrast, we must imagine ourselves or our descendants actually living in the ruins of the cities we built.”7 Dora Apel suggests that part of the attraction of these ruinous sites—like the appeal of watching a car crash—is that they temper the anxiety of our possible future.8

Following my earlier installations, I began to insinuate artworks themselves into the reverse archaeology narrative. In 2006 I started fabricating canvases and sculptures that replicated American colonial paintings and objects and created the appearance that they were in dilapidated or catastrophic states—a conservator’s nightmare manifested and a challenge to the idea of the “timelessness” of the historic objects. Using canvas, Foamcore, paint, and papier-mâché, I made environments that appeared broken, exploded, eroded, burned, shipwrecked, water damaged, ravaged by time, or picked at by birds. Although the installation looked as though it had been subjected to subtractive methods, like the earlier rooms of peeled paper, the illusions of decay and destruction were meticulously constructed.

In 2012 I was invited by the Brooklyn Museum to create activations in three of its early American period rooms.9 In many ways this was a dream project: to place my fabricated historical narratives within a fabricated space of fabricated historical narratives. My site-specific installations disrupted the familiar appearance of the historic rooms and attempted to reveal a darker side of the American story. In this larger project, the role of destruction was threefold: to question the authority of the museum and its display; to dismantle stereotypes and give energy to history’s repressed voices; and to create liminal space for the past, present, and future to mingle.

I chose a Southern plantation dining room (Cane Acres Plantation of South Carolina, 1789–1806) and two rooms from a Southern home originally owned by a New England sea captain (Cupola House parlor and hall, North Carolina, ca. 1725, woodwork 1756–58).10 My aim was to evoke historical narratives that are not visible in the usual installations of period rooms, such as the slave trade behind the labor on a plantation; the widespread death of Native Americans through war, disease, and forced displacement; and the violence and environmental destruction created by colonial expansionism. Along with telling these stories, the project functioned as an institutional critique by calling attention to issues of invisibility and erasure within the museum displays themselves.

The period rooms at the Brooklyn Museum are completely closed off by glass doorways and windows through which the viewer must peer. Much like looking into dioramas or sealed time capsules, the period rooms exude historic authority and the aura of a fixed narrative. The chaotic nature of my sculptural arrangements was staged for greatest effect from these framed viewpoints, highlighting the already painterly and cinematic presentation of the rooms while breaking the illusion of the sacrosanct.

The tableau created in the Cane Acres Plantation dining room consisted of a murder of crows attacking a banquet table laid with overly ripe fruit and devouring two fruit still lifes rendered in three dimensions (fig. 2). Referencing the banquet still-life genre of the Dutch Golden Age—paintings that depicted sumptuous feasts and contained moral warnings about greed and gluttony—the banquet table was overflowing with food, crows, and chaos.11 The cinematic aspect of the overall composition, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, highlighted the theatricality of the room, while the birds’ field of blackness suggested slaves in revolt and Jim Crow laws of American racial segregation.12 The attack on watermelons was suggestive of an aggressive deconstruction of a stereotype, while the oozing red stains on the tablecloth evoked a larger picture of bodily violence.13 The jostled chairs around the table indicated the dinner guests who had left the scene abruptly. The crows’ rebellious and exuberant behavior reclaimed the room and the feast for themselves as they destroyed the domestic space of their imprisonment. Again, like Cole’s Desolation, there were no signs of humans, just the birds making a new home in the wreckage.

Looking through the window of the second room, the Cupola House, the viewer ascertained an alarming scenario of a pantry and dining hall blasted with gunfire (fig. 3). Considering the period room’s time frame, the Revolutionary or Civil War might seem a likely source of the damage. Pausing to survey the destruction more carefully, the viewer would find a hole-ridden Thomas Cole landscape hung over the mantel and nearby similarly mutilated furniture and dishware (despite their damage) still standing upright, creating a surrealistic effect. Homing in further, one would discover a small downy woodpecker clinging to the side of the Cole painting, beak deep in the gilded frame, and a larger pileated woodpecker drilling down on the side table. Some species of woodpeckers were victims of the Manifest Destiny ideology often depicted in early American landscape painting: their numbers were threatened unto extinction due to loss of habitat by early logging efforts. In my narrative, the woodpeckers—the subversive culprits of the destruction—were attacking the realistically painted trees along with the interior of a wealthy settler’s family home, in an effort to root out infestation. The destruction in this installation was intended to parallel the wars and environmental degradation that follows territorial expansionism.

In the Cupola House parlor, I developed my work around the theme of violence perpetrated against Native Americans by European settlers. The installation involved three discrete works: a decapitated portrait of George Washington, whose severed head rested on the couch below; a portrait of an Indian chief whose neck was growing branches; and a rug that appeared to be decomposing and sprouting grasses (fig. 4). The headless portrait of George Washington was based on Rembrandt Peale’s famous Porthole-type painting. The alterations to the original spoke to the federal government’s efforts to eradicate Native American culture in the name of westward expansion and nationalism, suggesting that this icon of American identity had fallen victim to a violent retaliation. The face, rendered sculpturally on the couch, sat within a black field of canvas and paint, heading toward the floor, perhaps to provide fertilizer for the grasses in the rug.

For the artwork above the fireplace, I looked to Charles Bird King’s portrait of the Pawnee chief Sharitarish (1822, White House Collection), which pictures one of seventeen Native American leaders invited to the White House by President James Monroe in 1821. The invitation was represented as an act of unity, but in actuality it attempted to intimidate the delegation into cooperating with the government’s plan to expand west. King’s portrait is a reminder of the desire to frame, assimilate, and control the identity and destiny of Native Americans. The growing foliage that lifted the head from the body represented Sharitarish’s inseparable bond to the landscape, taking inspiration from accounts of shape shifting in Native American mythology.

The final piece of the installation was a rug in the center of the floor—its patterns evocative of southwestern Native American designs—that looked as if it were disintegrating, with sections separating and grasses taking root in its remnants. The fragmentation of the rug exposed the floorboards of the parlor, creating a stratification that suggested a memory of Native American presence existing below the layer of the European settlers’ floorboards. The rug’s interaction with the floor and its rupture into various pieces referenced the idea of land, separation, and reservations.

Authors of ghost stories will sometimes gather a group of characters, after dinner and drink, in a relaxed parlor to puff on cigars. The smoky room and drowsy guests create a dream-like atmosphere in which specters appear. Anthony Vidler describes this phenomenon in The Architectural Uncanny: From Hoffmann to Rimbaud, in short stories and in many veillées, smoke is thus an agent of dissolution by which the fabric of the house is turned into the depth of the dream; in the same way, as an instrument of the sublime, smoke has always made obscure what otherwise would have seemed too clear.14

This is perhaps how I most think about the trope of decay and destruction in my work for the Brooklyn Museum period rooms—as a busy visual field that disrupts reality, creates a space for the slippage of time, and allows the ghosts of history a space in which to reappear, roam, and reclaim their territory.


“About the Series: The Course of Empire,” Thomas Cole National Historic Site’s Explore Thomas Cole,

To see more examples of my work, visit

Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, vol. 17, An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works (1917–1919) (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 219–52.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Writings (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006).

Sarah Roberts, “Erased de Kooning Drawing,” Rauschenberg Research Project, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, posted July 2013,
-de-kooning-drawing/; and Robert Rauschenberg: Man at Work, directed by Chris Granlund (London: BBC and RM Arts, 1997), excerpted at

Thomas Morton, “Something, Something, Something Detroit,” VICE, July 31, 2009,

David A. Collings, Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 106.

Dora Apel, Beautiful Terrible Ruins: Detroit and the Anxiety of Decline (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2015).

“Valerie Hegarty: Alternative Histories,” May 17–December 1, 2013, Brooklyn Museum,

“Cane Acres, The Perry Plantation,” Brooklyn Museum,; and “Hall, The Cupola House,” Brooklyn Museum,

Ira Ferris, “Still Life in the Dutch Golden Age,” Art**Iris (blog), January 1, 2015,

The Birds (1963), IMDb,; and “The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,” PBS,

William Black, “How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope,” Atlantic, December 8, 2014,

Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), 41.