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Most of us throw things out. But the Delaware Contemporary’s exhibition Trash Talk is showcasing the art of Jim Condron, who seeks out trash and collects it. There’s a long history of questioning exactly what art is, and Condron taps directly into it.
The artist has grants and awards and an MFA from the Maryland Institute of Art. Condron’s work is in institutions and collections, and there are labels on the walls. But “I (or my child) could make that” is particularly apt here. You actually might be able to create these works, but the big question is: Could you see your way to this vision? And then—would you actually construct it?
Art making (especially nonrepresentational creation) is not solely about the finished product. It’s also about focus and intention and a way to interpret the world. Though Condron is highly trained, this artist’s view shares a vocabulary with what we’ve designated as “outsider art,” and so does his practice and process.
Condron lives outside of Baltimore, making his works not in a north-facing, paint-encrusted, shut-away-from-the-world studio but inside his condo or on a 4-by-20-foot balcony, where neighbors see what he’s doing and (mostly) appreciate it. Not coincidentally, Baltimore is home to both John Waters and the American Visionary Art Museum—well-known experts in artistic subversion—and there is also currently a major outsider-art exhibition in Philadelphia. So what Condron is exploring at the Delaware Contemporary sits amid a fertile regional context.
Shutters, ribbons, socks, and verbiage
The exhibition, curated by Katharine Page, consists of four large works and 26 small assemblages of found (or intentionally sought) materials. Condron enhances them with unattributed quotes from great writers, verbiage he’s sourced and then appropriated as he does with his materials. The titles, intellectual non sequiturs unrelated to the artworks’ content, are entry points to a dialogue with what’s on the walls.
Some titles are subversively cross-referential. There’s no knitwear in Sweater vest, bad idea (2017), but Slinking around like small-town cops (2018) is a sock from writer Mimi Lipson, whose catalogue essay actually establishes its provenance. Condron likes to use things from other artists, and one assemblage includes a piece of Grace Hartigan’s canvas. Occasionally a title resonates unexpectedly: Memory can make a thing seem to have been much more than it was (2018) makes the shadow of a cross on the wall, and He should get a nice raise for trying so hard (2018) could be a hardworking heart spilling its contents.
Opposite the entrance are three arresting square color-filled canvases that clearly reference modern American painters. Approximately five by six feet and pinned to the wall, each sports an overhanging “lintel” of shutters, spindles, or vintage bowling pins. Here, the literary titles are enhanced by clever curatorial comment: I have saved all my ribbons for thee (2015/2019) has no ribbons or lines of any sort, but it hangs next to I could never lose myself for long among impersonal things (2017), festooned with yarn, ribbon-esque strings and braided rope.
A guide to the circus
The exhibition includes rack cards with artists “talking trash” about one another, metalayering on Condron’s already heady work. One salvo: William Faulkner says of Ernest Hemingway, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway shoots back, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
There’s a short, witty catalogue, helpfully on the artist’s website. Its highlight is the essay “Mixed Media Circus” by Adam Ruben, the molecular biologist who’s also a writer, TV personality, and standup comic as well as an expert at diverting and subverting his own field. Ruben opens by saying, “Let me just come out and say I don’t get it.” He quotes Truman Capote’s deliciously biting assessment of Jack Kerouac (“That’s not writing, that’s typing”) and wonders if Condron’s work “isn’t art, it’s gluing.” He even works in a reference the Ebright Azimuth, Delaware’s not-so-tall highest point, in this cleverly erudite apologia for artmaking and viewing that invites us to make our own decisions.
It’s a perfect introduction to the work of Condron, who also hides his erudition, letting you in on what might (or might not) be his jokes while staying firmly in the mysterious realm of nonrepresentation. He too invites you to judge for yourself. Or not.
What, When, Where
Trash Talk: History in Assemblage. Through November 10, 2019, at the Delaware Contemporary, 200 South Madison Street (on the Riverfront), Wilmington, DE. (302) 656-6466 or decontemporary.org.
The Delaware Contemporary is an ADA-compliant venue. The museum is open for free Tuesday through Sunday.
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