George Herms suffers from an excess of generosity. Take his current retrospective just opened at the Municipal Art Gallery. Make that retrospectives with an "s." He couldn't settle for just one covering a decent decade or so. He had to have two at once, each covering 30 years.
The main one is "George Herms: The Secret Archives." It includes 95 works. That's enough but evidently concerned that visitors might lack sufficient visual soul food, the artist threw in "Annex to the Secret Archives," a spread of works on paper at the adjacent Junior Art Center gallery. It swells the total to 217. Herms himself seems to sum up the situation in a print that approximates a scrawled directional sign. It has two arrows going in opposite directions. One points to The Sublime the other to The Ridiculous.
Which is by way of saying that George Herms is a very special guy, an extraordinary artist, and if this survey doesn't persuade any doubters, it is hard to imagine what would.
He is, for one thing, the last authentic practicing artist hereabouts from the bohemian generation of 1950s primitives that launched the laid-back, dropped-out, self-invented mode of life that evolved into the Beat Generation and, subsequently, into hippies, punks and hip-hoppers. Herms didn't just contribute to an art movement, he helped ignite the engine of revolutionary American youth culture.
His vehicle for doing this was the manner of art known as Assemblage. The modern version of the style, concocted in Europe, was predated here by the paintings of artists like William Harnett, John Haberle and John Frederick Peto. Their trompe l'oeil still-lifes constitute a true populist style that Assemblage picked up and expanded into three dimensions using Yankee cracker-barrel ingenuity and know-how. It became an art literally made out of bailing wire, bubble gum or anything found in attic and alley that would suit the purpose. It is an art form as classically American as jazz, cinema or the original line of declamatory verse that stretches from Walt Whitman to the San Francisco poets.
Herms started his artistic enterprise hanging out with all such folks. This exhibition gives a nod to their influence in pieces dedicated to fellow artists Artie Richer and Wally Berman, poet Robert Duncan and several others. Herms is inclined to sign his letters, "Faithfully."
The sense of jazz is everywhere, from the ragtime nostalgia of all the precious old junk that makes up the work to the be-bop improvisation of its composition. One set of small prints was literally done by inking drumsticks and then rapping them on paper--surprisingly beautiful prints. Herms trademark is the word "LOVE" with the "E" turned backward. Must mean something.
Poetry is at the core of Herms' work. He rhymes discarded objects with the hilarity and terror of human experience. Sometimes about all it takes to make an artwork out of a piece of worthless junk is to say, "Hey, look at that."
He's done little to an old vertical metal sign except stand it up. The thing looks as if it's been through every apocalypse visited upon the planet. It's been torched, hurricaned, tornadoed, earthquaked and typhooned, according to its appearance. After some squinting one makes out the old blistered, eroded lettering. It says, "Emergency."
The way Herms uses words it's a great wonder that he hasn't been bracketed with Ed Ruscha as an archaic forerunner of Concept Art. Maybe it's because Herms' wordworks tend to be puns. There's a brown bag he picked up in the Eternal City called "The Sack of Rome."
Numerous discarded items of footwear hang from a wire armature. The piece is titled "Shoe Tree." Puns are a mild form of torture for logical people because they derail the rational process. We groan at silly word play but really good puns delight us by opening up unconventional avenues of perception. Herms' Roman sack talks about pop culture invading the venerable city. His tree of shoes becomes a poignant embodiment of intimate human interconnectedness and vulnerability.
Maybe the artist takes puns seriously because his name seems to be one. It suggests hermetic, which his work is. It suggests the classical deity Hermes or Mercury, the messenger of the gods. It suggests herm, an archaic stone slab worshiped as a sacred sign.
So there is something reverential in Herms' irreverence, a quality of religion. If it's anything, it's probably Zen. The idea of a religion lacking a doctrine would appeal to the artist.
Some people are puzzled by an art whose votaries hold the things of life so sacred that they save society's effluvium like mystical ecologists only to turn around and use it to speak of joy, violence and death in the same breath. The show opens with "The Alcove of Beginnings," which frames a photograph of the dehydrated corpse of a lynched cat. The image's morbidity is redeemed by its allusion to mummification. The sacred cats of Egypt had more than nine lives.
"Shot full of Holes" is a rusty washtub basin riddled lace-like by some gun toter. Like many of the works, it speaks of the endemic violence of American society. At the same time, its shape, rich patina and celadon porcelain lining evoke the timeless grace of an ancient Chinese bronze offering vessel.
The next moment Herms is blithe in a Roman work set like a banquet table with his lyric thoughts about a country where a good soccer match is more important than an earthquake.
The show is a triumph for Herms and the gallery. It could only be better if it traveled. It would grace any museum. It comes with an exceptionally handsome boxed catalogue designed by artist Jerry McMillan and includes readable texts by poet David Meltzer, scholar Susan Larsen and Muni director Edward Leffingwell, who organized the show. Jeffrey Herr curated the paper part.
Catalogue illustrations are loose, some in the form of postcards which Herms is fond of sending. They recall a note he mailed a friend that suggests why Herms' art is so rich. "I am doing," he wrote, "what you are reading about."
Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., through Nov. 1, closed Monday. (213) 485-4581 .