Under Construction: Sally Heller at the Galleries at Moore

Meredith Sellers sees orange at a site-specific installation in Philadelphia by New Orleans-based artist Sally Heller.

Installation view of Sally Heller’s Orange Alert, 2016, at the Galleries at Moore, Philadelphia. Courtesy the artist. Photo by the author.

Some kind of disaster has occurred in the window of the Galleries at Moore, at Moore College of Art & Design, in Philadelphia. Orange net fencing is strung from the ceiling tangled with yellow caution tape; signs point in every direction; traffic cones are toppled in disarray; a glimmering puddle of mylar is spilled across the floor. In actuality, it’s an installation called Orange Alert by New Orleans-based artist Sally Heller.

Heller’s work frequently invokes the language of disaster: Hurricane Katrina, the decimation of the wetlands, and impending environmental tragedy. Orange Alert takes on a more bureaucratic type of disaster, a hyperbolic version of the snarled mess that greets every driver up and down I-95. It’s a chaos created from what is usually an ordered mess, a temporary destruction making way for expansion. Heller’s scene is strewn with orange-hued found objects, many of the sort that make up just such a construction site: safety vests, a pile of rope, caution tape, the aforementioned traffic cones and netting. Silver piping loops through the right side of the installation, going out one wall and into another, emerging on the left side. Smiley faces printed on clear plastic, like the ones on Chinese-take-out bags, hang from the ceiling and grin idiotically, as if trying to placate the situation.

But the material metaphor becomes muddled the closer you look. A confusing curtain of peach-tinged tulle hangs awkwardly on the left side, shifting the materials away from the utilitarian and into something fanciful, boho, domestic. Similarly, scraps of a homey, bright-orange plaid fabric appear haphazard and insubstantial in contrast to the pragmatic bungee cords they hang from. A cluster of vibrant Wiffle balls are suspended like a whimsical chandelier. A single coil of green twine dangles not far from a plastic bumble-bee toy. While the twisting of industrial construction-site materials subverts the supposed order it represents, the addition of incongruous domestic materials is confusing, and this conflation of spaces and languages doesn’t add up.

Orange Alert is stuck between being a literal tableau of a construction scene and being a broader color-based formalist examination of cultural detritus. The materials that make up the installation are perhaps a little too easy, too familiar. They never seem to coalesce into a sculpture and don’t appear in great enough numbers to make a strong point about the nature of their mass production, as objects often do in pieces by other artists working in similar ways, such as Jessica Stockholder or Isa Genzken.

The work also has the misfortune of immediately following a very similar installation in the exact same space. Melanie Smith’s Orange Lush, installed as part of “Strange Currencies: Art & Action in Mexico City, 1990-2000,” was an impossibly dense installation of found objects all in hues of orange—balloons, rope, life preservers, buoys, balls, baskets, pom poms, flip-flops, light bulbs, water rafts, and other plastic junk—and spoke to the invasion of cheap commodities in 1990s Mexico City, often packaged in that color. The specificity of that work stands in contrast to Heller’s installation, which never seems to find its ground, vacillating between formal play and grasping for profundity.

Editor's Note

Sally Heller’s Orange Alert is on view through June 4, 2016, at the Galleries at Moore (1916 Race Street) in Philadelphia.