Rachel Herrick's new artwork makes me gag and cry. That's why we're wearing respirators.
In April, we stand in the lot outside Herrick's studio, a sun-drenched garage-like building near Boylan Avenue in Raleigh, close enough to Central Prison that you can almost make out the commands being issued to inmates over the loudspeakers.
About two weeks earlier, in North Charleston, South Carolina, white police officer Michael Slager had gunned down black motorist Walter Scott after he fled a traffic stop for a faulty brake light. Shot five times, Scott died, and North Charleston took to the streets in protest, just like Ferguson, Staten Island and Oakland.
Pensive, Herrick holds a can of pepper spray. I hover at a reasonable distance. She blinks rapidly through goggles, considering the panel she's just doused. The tomato soup-colored toxins are soaking into its surface. She's not searching for some small detail there. She's just trying to endure the pain of being close to it.
"This stuff will blister your skin," Herrick says. She burnishes vinyl letters onto the panels. Then, she suits up—goggles, mask, clothing from head to toe—sprays the panels, lets them dry and carefully peels off the letters so the white text shows against the orange spray.
The flat, sans serif letters spell out affirmations such as "I am honest with myself and others" as well as more pointed phrases such as "breathing is effortless," a reference to the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island last year.
Before proceeding from text to imagery, Herrick says, "I needed to learn more about these issues and my role in institutional racism." The result is Signs of Disaster, a show with textile artist Megan Sullivan at Flanders Gallery, which includes pepper spray paintings of screen grabs from an onlooker's video of the Scott shooting. The series is entitled "6 Seconds, 13 Yards."
"Each painting represents one of the six seconds it took for Scott to flee 13 yards, be shot in the back and collapse," Herrick explains.
Herrick doesn't use the pepper spray that joggers carry. Prompted by a photograph from Occupy Berkeley—a smug policeman, leaving a trail of orange mist, walks down a line of passive protestors, spraying them right in the eyes—she orders the same high-test formula that riot police use. A direct shot of it is about as incapacitating as tear gas. In the gallery, if you lean close and inhale, you'll get a little whiff, like a scratch-and-sniff sticker of paprika soup.
"Chemicals in the spray oxidize and turn white, making the orange pepper oil pigments nearly invisible over time," Herrick says. "Within a year, these images will be nearly invisible, leaving nothing but the sting behind."
As Herrick works in her studio, a life-size mannequin of her "North American Obeast" looks on beneath a plastic cover. She transformed Flanders Gallery into a facetious yet critical Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies in 2013, presenting information about the obese humanoid mammal in order to make viewers mindful of their preconceptions and prejudices about fat and the female form.
"The Obeast is what it feels like when people don't think," Herrick says. "The pepper spray is that again."
As a white person, Herrick thought long and hard before she used the Walter Scott images.
"This work is about bearing witness to horrors and owning up to one's role in them," she says. "It's about how we allow our memory of disasters to fade away while their effects linger. It's about the privilege of forgetfulness. Confronting racism isn't just a job for black people."
The confrontational quality of Herrick's Obeast oeuvre is amplified in the pepper spray paintings, which speak to the different stakes of racial violence in our lives. Many of us experience it as passive viewers, clicking weblinks and watching video footage, shaking our heads. But those who live it every day risk everything the moment they step out of their doors.
"This work is meant to make the audience physically and emotionally uncomfortable, to jostle them out of a safe art gallery experience," Herrick says. "There is a white person in these images. He acts in our name, with our sanction, according to our rules. He represents an institutional racism that creates privilege for some at the expense of others. The art world is still dominantly white, and we are exactly the people who need to be challenging ourselves about our role in institutional racism."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Inflammatory agent." INDY arts and culture editor Brian Howe contributed additional reporting to this story.