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'Sun Splashed': Finding art, and modern life, in the streets
The Philadelphia Inquirer

By Thomas Shine

 

The man stopped briefly to look at the artwork on display near the entrance of the Barnes Foundation.

 

"Looks like garbage," he said, then walked on into the museum.

 

I've heard similar statements from many others at museum exhibitions, but this man's tone was different. He was not judging or condemning, merely observing and classifying.

 

The work in question, Land (2002-14) by Nari Ward, resembles a tree made of old wheels tied in a complex web of materials, with small wheels lying at the bottom like fallen leaves. It is clearly made out of old stuff, things made for another purpose, scavenged, salvaged, or redeemed to become something else.

 

The visitor wasn't offended or repelled by the piece. But, like most who go to the Barnes, he was on his way to see the Matisses, Cézannes, and other certified masterpieces. He clearly didn't feel that this tree of discards required his scrutiny.

 

The Barnes' current special exhibition, "Nari Ward: Sun Splashed," on view until Aug. 22, proposes otherwise. Ward, who was born in Jamaica in 1963 and spent most of his adulthood in Harlem, roams the streets looking for things he can use in his complex, bound-together constructions of material and meaning. He wants to make us look at things - objects and people - that most people feel they don't really need to see. It is art driven by ideas - too many ideas at times - yet it is also about the physical labor and psychic obsession that goes into its making, and about the materials from which it is made.

 

It is a small show, consisting of only 29 works of widely varying scale, drawn from a larger exhibition organized by the Pérez Art Museum Miami. It doesn't take long to see it, but at least a few of the works say things that stick in the mind for some time.

 

It has me thinking again about the paradox of American materialism. We hunger for possessions, not so much for their inherent physical qualities, or even their usefulness, but because they represent an abstract goal, such as progress, comfort, prosperity, or family pride. There are always more objects to feed this hunger, and when they get old, they become refuse and fall beneath our notice. America is such an affluent place that for one work that isn't in this show, Ward was able to find 365 abandoned baby strollers in a neighborhood where many are poor.

 

In salvaging them, Ward is doing what many people do in his native Jamaica and other poor places: giving these things a kind of salvation, an afterlife. In one series of works, he has taken old neon signs that read "Liquors," highlighted the S, O, U, and L, and created shrines that aren't explicitly religious, but do seem to whisper, at least, of redemption.

 

Perhaps the key work in the show is Savior (1996), a shopping cart turned Tower of Babel, a pile of webbed and woven stuff, including a fancy mantle clock near the bottom and a folding chair at the top. It is an elaboration of Ward's method of finding his materials and subjects, though also concerns people near the bottom of the social ladder, those who pick through trash not for art but for survival.

 

A video shows Ward pushing Savior through New York. Although the rolling sculpture is taller than a city bus, the people on the street seem hardly to give this absurd object a second glance. Nor do they pay attention to the person pushing the cart. By disappearing into the human jetsam, Ward finds a powerful position from which to observe his adopted home.

 

Ward is well aware that transforming "wretched refuse" is part of the promise of America, as inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Naturalization Drawing Table (2004), a Plexiglas desk with many citizenship application forms on which Ward has made drawings, is a monument to his procrastination and ambivalence toward becoming a United States citizen.

 

Some of his works allude directly to African spiritual traditions. In a series of panels titled Miles, Bird, Ella, and Sarah (all 1993-2014), he studs the work with steel tacks, an allusion to the Nkisi figures of the Congo region whose bodies are pierced with nails to release the spiritual power within. Oriented Right (2015), a scratched and partly patinated copper plate, with copper nails and holes, seems at first to be a radiant abstraction. But the pattern of the holes is based on a Congolese cosmological symbol and copied from breathing holes used by runaway slaves hiding beneath a church in Savannah. The green splotches were made by the artist's feet as he walked across the panel. The result is an unlikely fusion of abstract expressionism and American history that is a powerful object in itself.

 

A residency at Philadelphia's own Fabric Workshop & Museum helped inspire Ward to create the show's two greatest examples of civic art.

 

Homeland, Sweet Homeland (2012), a sewn shield topped with an eagle made from real eagle feathers, and garlands made of razor wire and bullhorns at the bottom, is a folkish, edgy celebration of the Miranda rights of those accused of a crime. An accompanying video, in which he appears to be teaching his sons to remember those rights, is particularly powerful in the wake of many tragic incidents involving young black men and police.

 

We the People (2011), in which the first three words of the U.S. Constitution are spelled out with multicolored shoelaces, seems - from across the room at least - to be pure patriotism. Close up, though, the words dissolve into a muddle. The We is hard to see. What we are left with is just a vivid, ebullient tangle of individual threads. We see all kinds of people, some of whom are getting by on a shoestring.