Dreams of Debris and Discarded Realities: Jim Condron at Art Cake

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On my way to teach a drawing class at MICA almost ten years ago, I spotted a newly installed found object show in one of the college’s main galleries. Glued, screwed, or nailed together—the everyday, often castoff items were glazed and rusted with “back-in-the-day” purposes. Barely.

By the time I greeted my students, I had rethought my “mark making” lesson for that morning. I brought my students downstairs to draw from Jim Condron’s just-seen mixed-media conglomerations. As anticipated, the students were inspired to richly invent from the artist’s highly textured inventions. More, they grew to appreciate how Baltimore’s alleys could be viewed as extensions of their studios or classrooms, and as free art supply stores.

Like a decade ago, in Condron’s current solo show, Collected Things, at ArtCake in Brooklyn, NY (through June 17th), objects’ original functions no longer exist. These messily, merrily arranged and painted (or better, “buttered,” his word) fabrications are sophisticated, ordered messes, evenly divided between intentional, intuitive, and visually seductive.


"Lucy Sante's Things"
Condron doesn’t need much to create a narrative or a character, or to show a relationship. Remarkable how combining objects, each with its own lineage, can create brand new offspring.
Barry Nemett

The objects’ first and second lives were integrated into fluid, raw, row-row-row-your-boat, artful, life-is-but-a-dream journeys. In Condron’s studio, dreams are more important than boats, which is to say that the lesson is creativity over practicality.

He learned about scavenging from the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Phyllida Barlow; about paint from Grace Hartigan and Philip Guston, and celebrating painterly qualities in materials that don’t involve paint; endowing small things with grand scale from Bill Traylor; and, as different as their traditions are, Jim says he’s learned about visual poetry and storytelling from the masters Giotto and Sassetta, 14th- and 15th-century painters, respectively.

One of his works’ main lessons is that nothing dies, even when it does. Lives live on. At ArtCake, Condron continues to refine his life-and-death language of form and content and trash. The exhibition consists of three rooms. The first room includes photographic portraits of people who provided the artist objects to work with. The main (second) room consists of 24 sculptures named after individuals who provided items that, in effect, served as the basic building blocks and ephemera of his constructions. The back room is comprised of more anonymous tossed and found “stuff.”

Tinfoil, fur, soap, a vintage fire cracker, a cat toy, plastic fork, and an 8-foot x 4-foot wooden street stencil of an arrow are a few of the elements that make up the artwork on display. Less physical things, like humor, absurdity, innocence, respect, and time are there too. In abundance.


"Sangram Majumdar's Things"

In the main room, there’s a fluid, crisp conversation between order and chaos in “Sangram Majumdar’s Things,” salvaged from the eponymous painter, a former MICA professor himself. With some of Condron’s best works, controlled chaos reigns. Here, just as good, control is crowned king. There’s especially order in the parallel rhythms and variations between the almost-verticals as they row, row, row, downstream on their upbeat way from paintbrushes to paint rollers.

On the other hand, there’s a stark white sadness in the centralized plaster cast hand with the fingers broken off. How will the artist hold his brushes or rollers? Firstly, Sangram could be a righty, in which case, no problem. Secondly, Condron’s work is only partly real, and not the most interesting part. Thirdly, the recreated (artistic) reality is far more important and interesting than the objects he uses. How he assembles things heads the list. What he actually assembles follows, distantly. So, again, no problem.

In “Majumdar’s Things,” the spatially receding rollers on one end continue the slight diagonal pattern initiated by the bulging paintbrushes on the other side. Also, the bold, straight paint strokes on the left become three small, curved roller handles on the right. This detail reminds me of an ellipsis (. . .) within or at the end of a sentence, implying that there could be more slight diagonals to come, implying that, as a creative viewer you can fill in the blanks yourself, implying that visual art is not only to be looked at, but watched; it can also be read, personally (not literally or literarily), implying that the lulling refrain from the children’s song “Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat” could go on interminably, or for as short or long as the singer(s) wants—like life, it just keeps drifting along. At least that’s the implication.


"Grace Hartigan's Things"
For artists, one challenge is not being precious or intimidated by the ghostly weight and presence of a strong inspiration. Acknowledging that inspiration, yet doing what needs to be done to translate that person, thing, or idea into a new 'language' or 'look,' is often murderously tough. It’s like defining yourself by killing a kind parent.
Barry Nemett

And then there’s “Grace Hartigan’s Things.” In one of their first (grad school) teacher/student interactions, Grace (1922-2008) ripped out a page from a magazine of Philip Guston’s painting, “Cellar”— with all its chaotic, bottom-side-up shoes and chair backs—and she gave it to Jim. She wanted to encourage him to loosen up his art making. Hartigan and Guston were close friends, two art historical figures, huge influences on countless artists (including Condron) from the 1960s-2000s. So it’s brave for him to choose Grace and Guston to play off of.

Phillip Guston, “Cellar,” 1970

And then there’s Matisse . . . braver yet for Condron! “Hartigan’s Things” revolves around one of the unquestionable art giants of the twentieth century in the form, content, harsh pink clogs, and orange and green jazzy sizzle of the pillow. Grace herself was greatly influenced by the French modern master.

For artists, one challenge is not being precious or intimidated by the ghostly weight and presence of a strong inspiration. Acknowledging that inspiration, yet doing what needs to be done to translate that person, thing, or idea into a new “language” or “look,” is often murderously tough. It’s like defining yourself by killing a kind parent.

Grace Hartigan was a pioneer in the art world and a great big personality. No wonder the last pair of shoes the famous Abstract Expressionist painter wore while in her studio look new(ish), or at least not messily messed with. But there they are: so very bright, shiny, and colorful, a force to be reckoned with. Placed far off-center—almost didn’t make it into the ensemble—but it dominates the proceedings. Just the right high-pitched color touch obliquely leading us into the sculpture. Except for the paint can stirrer, which Condron got that way from Grace, or more precisely, from Rex Stevens, who oversees her estate, “Grace Hartigan’s Things” is respectfully, touchingly untouched.


"Rex Stevens' Things"
"Fat Chihuahua"

Rex also gave Jim numerous objects of his, which the playful “put-er together-er” turned into a sort of spinning jewel—a dainty, zippy totem, or a small 3-D sketch for a futuristic, prismatic tower. Like many of Condron’s creations, it’s readable in numerous ways. Not quite how I—or likely, Jim — see the big, tough, ice hockey-playing Chair of several fine arts departments at MICA, but “Rex Stevens’ Things 3” is beautiful, resplendent, so I like looking at it.

Just as transparent and delicate as “Stevens’ Things,” but even more ephemeral, is “Fat Chihuahua.” Jim, the storyteller, at his best: restrained, fleshy, visceral palette, unlimited light-toned modulations. The sculpture, about the size of a real Chihuahua, could fit in a coat pocket, this glass, foam, plastic, fur, paint, and wood bauble, the pets’ ears and large eyes peeking out from quilted jackets or handbags, dog walkers’ gloveless hands engaged in petting, fingers lost in fur.

Speaking of fingers, among Condron’s most minimal works is “Your empty hand shows me off.” Two vertical straight lines set off the crudely attached pair. The taller, fuller one is clothed in a tight-fitting gray onesie, decorated with a white oval pattern covering head to foot—if there were head and feet. Here and there, gooey orange paint.

If they walked down a city block together, the smaller, more stabilized, more naked partner would hog the sidewalk, while the more snazzily-dressed other one would be forced to balance on curbs and avoid oncoming cars. Condron doesn’t need much to create a narrative or a character, or to show a relationship. Remarkable how combining objects, each with its own lineage, can create brand new offspring.

Collected Things is a collection of dreams. Dreams from famous artists and writers. Dreams of transformation. Dreams of debris and discarded realities generating future dreams.


Jim Condron: Collected Things, Sculptures from the Collected Items of Artists, Writers and Thinkers is on view through June 17, 2023 at Art Cake, 214 40th Street, Brooklyn, New York.


"Your empty hand shows me off"
"They’re so intimate, there isn’t any privacy"

Header Image: Doreen Bolger's things

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