In Headlights

The latest show at 55 Gansevoort, a closet-sized gallery in the Meatpacking district, reaches deep into American folklore, channeling tales much larger than could fit in the space. Able to peek in at any hour, viewers will see a real car bumper with glaring headlights, partially obscured by a taxidermy deer affixed to the front. Unsettling and unexpected, the sculpture conjures the loneliness and vague anxiety of a late night drive down a remote highway—when a break in monotony is usually bad news.

The installation “Rides Again,” and the story it tells, was designed by Los Angeles-based artist Nicklas Stewart, who is inspired by the narratives, conspiracy theories, and symbols that pervade American culture. “I’m interested in oral tradition, like campfire talk,” says Stewart. “Also, the idea of why people are telling these stories, and what that represents. It’s a barometer for a people, or for a region. It’s revealing.” Mounting a deer on a car echoes a common practice of hunters, who believe in commemorating the animal’s state at the time of its death.

An earlier version of the piece showed the deer with four eyes, referencing drunk driving (think double vision) and alien abduction. Gallery owner Ellie Rines was attracted the work as it embraces a narrative, rather than chasing an esoteric concept. “I found it refreshing to have something that was kind of outsider art but still part of the dialogue when people are so into minimalism and process based abstraction,” she says. “His practice is about trying to figure out your history if you’ve been American for many generations.”

For this version of the work, Stewart considered a more down-to-earth issue, criticizing misguided environmentalist attitudes toward deer. In the past few decades, the deer population has swelled as their natural predators have been killed off by ranchers. “Deer are starving to death because they have no food because there’s too many of them. And all the car crashes—so many humans have died now because of this imbalance,” says Stewart. “People are anti-hunting…[but] deer are overpopulated…this ‘road kill trophy’ is your off-season kill.” 

Stewart is not against environmentalism, he emphasizes. But “the way that people go about it is very wrong, and tends to create more imbalance,” he explains. “It’s an imbalance that we create trying to save ourselves while pretending to save something bigger than us. With these misguided efforts, we may die off, but nature is going to be fine.”