The Aura of Things (or the work of installation art) by Ed Madden


I’ve been thinking about things lately.  That is, I’ve been thinking about things.  Material objects, physical things.  How do things mean?


In part I’ve been thinking about things because of the grotesque consumerism of Black Friday, the greed of the season, and the ways that our culture encourages us to think love and happiness can be approximated and revealed in material objects.  (Jewelry commercials seem especially icky examples of this.)


But I’ve also been thinking of things because of two installation art exhibits I saw during the December Jingle & Mingle on Main Street art crawl: Susan Lenz’s “Hung by the Chimney with Care” at S&S Art Supply and Amanda Ladymon’s “Kindred Harvest” at Frame of Mind.


Installation art is tricky.  So much depends not on the idea, nor the execution, but on the things used. Socks, buttons, old cigar boxes, a Parcheesi board, yarn—things with little value, but weighted, in these projects, with meanings extraneous to the objects but integral to our perception of the art.  A useful word for this for me is aura, not necessarily in the sense that Walter Benjamin uses it to talk about the almost religious authenticity we feel (or once felt, he insists, before photography destroyed it all) for a work of art.  (And let me say here that I’m not an art theorist or an expert on Benjamin, just someone who likes to think about how artworks affect me, and why.)  In both of these installations, the objects had to be more than what they were, and our response depended on the associations those things held in our perceptions, our reactions.


Ladymon’s work depends on our emotional associations with childhood board games and family photos, even those not our own: a couple on a beach, a little girl on a bike, a family portrait, a wedding, an ultrasound fetal image.  I was moved by this display, but must admit that I wondered if there might be a fundamental disconnect in my experience of this work about familial, geographic, cultural connections, since these connections were marked not only by the overlay of photos over maps and images but also by the web of yarn connecting or not connecting these images to the Parcheesi board.  I’ve never played Parcheesi.  Although I have my own emotional and cultural associations with board games, and though I understand her explanation of how our lives and our families are created through unpredictable sequences of events, I sensed I might inevitably be missing something important about this work, since its heart was a resistant object, a thing that I didn’t understand.


Lenz, more perversely, demanded our attention to detritus, leftovers, garbage.  In a piece she produced earlier this year, "Two Hours at the Beach," Lenz incorporated all the garbage she found in two hours on Folly Beach into an art quilt, making an ecological statement as well as a fascinating textile piece.  (The quilt is currently part of a window display at Tapps.)  If that earlier work raised litter to the level of art, Lenz amps up that process with the new installation, layering cultural and emotional meanings (including the kitsch, the cliché, emotional garbage) onto our experience of what is basically, a bunch of junk.


An artshop window filled with old socks, scattered buttons, and a sad artificial Christmas tree with shabby tinsel would be a perverse display, were it not for the explanation prominent in the window: that these things came from the laundry of the old state mental hospital, and that her impulse—foregrounded in the title, a line from that bit of sentimental Christmas kitsch, “The Night Before Christmas”—was to emphasize the idea that not everyone gets to celebrate Christmas with family, either because they can’t be there, or because they’re not welcome there.  Junk here is transformed by our knowledge of its origins, like the beach trash but with a lot more cultural and political baggage.  Not just the mental hospital but also the cultural fictions of family that demand kitsch-ified versions of the holiday that don’t match the experiences of many.  Even our possibility for sympathy was registered in cliché—“There but by the grace of God go I,” a statement Lenz rendered on images of the hospital in cut-up letters like a ransom note.


But there were those socks, all those socks.  Parodies of the clichéd hung stockings.  Anonymous, leftover, but also registers of the authentic, the individual.  If this installation was filled with junk, it reminded me of the ways our culture treats certain people as junk: the mentally ill who are forced onto the streets by budget cuts, those whose lives don’t fit the cheery fictions of the season—the divorced, the orphaned, the rejected.


The window was so weird and powerful for me, filled with junk and cliché but so insistent that the viewer find a capacity for empathy—so insistent on an emotional authenticity in the aura of those things.  And so much depended on the origin of those things.  (Would the window make sense without that explanation in the window?)


I say all this not to diminish these projects.  I loved both, spent time with both, took my partner by to see both when he made it down after doing time eating over-salted food at some office party at a Vista sports bar.


What we do with things, how we think about things, the aura of things—this is part of how art works.


I have an artwork in my office at home: a page ripped from an old book, the poem “Sad Mementoes,” the first words of which are “Bereaved and forlorn.”  Other words are difficult to make out, since the page has been distressed with electric tape.  It’s an object marked by the process of erasure: lighter color, roughened texture, where the paper’s foxing and the poem’s ink have been lifted off the page with tape.  Above the title there is an image of a statue from a photo proofsheet.  Affixed to the page with a remnant of that black tape is pressed botanical specimen.


The work of Barry Jones, MFA student at USC back in the mid-1990s when I first came to the university, it is, for me, a haunting piece.  I don’t have to know that it is about his brother, or mental illness, or a book he found at a local antique shop for it to make sense, though those associations are now part of what it is and how it means.


Put a bone in a box—I’m thinking of my tenth-grade exhibit of animal skulls found on the farm—and it’s an object.  Call it “Reliquary,” and suddenly bones and boxes are weighted with a different kind of meaning—emotions, intimations of mortality.  They mean at a different register, not because of the objects but because of the aura of associations we have now for those objects.


As I type this, I’m wearing my father’s grey and black plaid flannel shirt, its literal warmth surely augmented by the emotion I associate with its wearing.  He passed away earlier this year.  He didn’t speak to me for almost a decade, literally, after I came out as a gay man, and I didn’t go home for Christmas for the past 16 years.  I spent three months earlier this year helping with his hospice care.  On my bookshelf there are three tiny plastic cups.  Clutter to anyone else, litter to another, but to me, a memory: one of those times that folks from church brought by the ritual bread and wine (crackers and grape juice), and we drank from those cups, me, my mother, and my father, lying in his hospital bed.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about things.  What we do with things.  How they mean.


-- Ed Madden




Mingle and Jingle -- Where Credit is Due

Jasper apologizes for not sharing this sooner, but better late than never ...

Mark Plessinger, owner of Frame of Mind and originator of First Thursdays on Main, was the guy who got Mingle and Jingle started as an ARTS EVENT back in the day. We keep hearing all this talk about it being a retail event now -- and, well good, as long as folks are buying art. Jasper likes growth and progress, but we also believe in giving credit where credit is due AND we like being true to original missions and goals.

Mark has done an excellent job of explaining what's going on in his regular First Thursdays on Main blog.

So come on out to Mingle and Jingle tonight, visit some shops sure, but remember that the art is why this whole party got started.

Support your local artists --Give Art this Christmas.

Hung By the Chimney With Care, an installation by Susan Lenz

I know, I know. The weather is getting nippy. You've got a million things to do toward getting ready for the holidays and/or ending the semester. You're behind on sleep and ahead on stress. And just when you were getting used to it being November, damned if December didn't sneak up behind you and go boo. You may be thinking to yourself that, given what a good patron of the arts you are in general, this particularly busy First Thursday in December might be one that you don't really have to attend.

Think again.

Even if you aren't a sap for the holidays like we are at Jasper, if you're an arts lover, this First Thursday -- also known as Mingle and Jingle on Main -- is one event that you really don't want to miss.

We wrote yesterday about Amanda Ladymon's new work, Kindred Harvest -- which is more than enough to go out in the cold for -- but we are equally excited about the multi-artist exhibition at Anastasia & FRIENDS (featuring local arts celebs such as Virginia Scotchie and Susan Lenz) as well as the Tapp's Arts Center Winter Mix, guest curated by Jeremy Wooten and showing work by a whole slew of local artists including Nikolai Oskolkov, Alex Smith, and Fausto Pauluzzi -- not to mention the good folks in the Art Studios in the Arcade at 1332 Main Street including Eileen Blyth, Richard Lund, Debra Paysinger, Bettye Rivers and more.

But one of the main reasons to come out into the cold on Thursday night is to see new work by fiber and installation artist, Susan Lenz.

Though reluctant to admit it, Susan Lenz is an artist who knows no fear, recognizes few obstacles, and to top it all off, somehow has the energy of a 14-year-old and a work ethic that would send Orwell's Boxer the workhorse early to the glue factory in shame. (Witness the fact that Lenz will be participating in no less than three exhibitions on Thursday night.)

Her new work, installed in the windows and interior of S & S Art Supplies on Main Street, is entitled Hung By the Chimney With Care, and has been in the making since last spring when Lenz, ever the forager and scavenger, discovered an abandoned pile of socks in a laundry facility on the grounds of the South Carolina State Mental Hospital. While most people would have looked at the pile and seen crazy people-laundry, Lenz looked at it and saw art. Lenz writes about the installation here.

We haven't seen this new installation yet, but we've seen almost everything else that Lenz has done -- and she's done installations and shown in exhibitions far and wide mind you, (and if you're wondering why Jasper hasn't written about her yet, rest assured that she and her work will hold a place of prominence in the March 2012 issue of Jasper, subtitled All Women -- All Arts). So while we may not know what exactly to expect from Lenz's latest project, we do know that, based on the history of her work, we should expect a thorough and fully realized installation with fastidious attention to detail; in all probability, a somber message; but, knowing Lenz as we do, likely in a whimsical form.

For these reasons and more, we look forward to seeing you on Main Street on Thursday night -- most likely in front of the windows of S & S Art Supplies.


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“Kindred Harvest” -- new works by Amanda Ladymon

kin·dred   [kin-drid]  noun or adj:

a person's relatives collectively; kinfolk; kin. of persons related to another; family, tribe, or race.

har·vest   [hahr-vist]  noun:

5. the result or consequence of any act, process, or event.


Local artist Amanda Ladymon will be showing some interesting new works during Mingle and Jingle on Main Street this week, though not at her home gallery at S & S Art Supply. Ladymon's work can be found down the street as an exciting installment in the FOM series at the Frame of Mind optical shop.

The new exhibition is composed of mixed media paintings on wood panel and on paper. Ladymon used a new photo transfer method in incorporating old photographs, dating back to the early 1920's through the 1980's. Incorporating biological drawings, she creates a metaphorical dialogue between the event or person in the photo and what is being implied through form and line. While it ranges from subtle to obvious, the shapes are consistently referring to reproductive processes in the female body, starting from the cellular level.

Upstairs at FOM, a special mixed-media assemblage and found object installation occupies part of the loft space.

According to Ladymon, life in so many ways, is much like a game of parcheesi. So many decisions, mistakes, or unexpected encounters happen with just the "toss of the dice." Each decision one player makes will inevitably affect the other players. Ladymon writes that she feels that life parallels this "game" in that, for every action, there is an effective chain of events that lead to everything else, whether we win or lose.

Over twenty-five altered cigar boxes, hang suspended and glowing from the inside. Each box contains photographic images layered with maps and other images, revealing an important clue as to where the photo was taken, or perhaps what memories are tied with that person or specific event taking place in the photo. Some of the boxes are connected with a line of string to different areas on the game board, signifying the connection between not only the people, but the events themselves.

For a better understanding of what brought Ladymon to this work, please read her artist statement below --

“Having recently tied the knot, my husband and I are weaving a new path and creating our own family, which makes me reflect back on my family and its many generations of strong women who held it together. This body of work investigates the many complexities of family and the roles played within those relationships. The mother and child bond and reproductive process is one strong influence on this work. Our upbringing affects us all, especially in determining what kind of person we turn out to be. Within this body of work, there are many photographic images used to reflect on my family’s past – all the photographs and drawings were acquired directly from my family albums. The many shapes and organic drawings interspersed amongst the photographic images represent the connective energy between each person, whether it was the memory of loving or possibly more of a longing. The use of circular forms continues to symbolize the connective relationship we have with one another in a biological or conceptual sense.

 “Another theme I have touched on is the idea of how each moment and decision in life affects another. While I generally feel repulsed by the images and ideas of war, I cannot deny the fact that if WWII hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t exist. World War II was a monumental turning point in America, in which millions of families were created due to strangers meeting and falling in love. My grandparents had such a story. They met while he was recovering from a broken back after his plane crashed.  He was a southern boy from Georgia and she was an adventurous, strong-willed California girl. With every little decision, mistake, and circumstantial event, they met and created a family. This sequence of events eventually lead to my birth and the strong influence their marriage continued to have on me throughout my adolescence and early adulthood.”