“Elvis has left the building,” was the announcement used to inform concert-goers at Elvis’s performances that the show was truly over. Without it, the most intense fans would linger for hours waiting for Elvis to reappear and do just one more song: it was a deconsecrating way of informing supplicants the performance space was no longer holy, the deity no longer present. This phrase is also the title of a small work [Remnant No. 4 (Elvis Has Left The Building), 2013] in Brooklyn-based artist Drew Conrad’s current solo exhibition, Backwater Blues, at Get This! Gallery in midtown Atlanta [August 24-October 5, 2013].
The famous declaration and its implicit distinctions—presence and absence, interior and exterior, proximity to ineffable experience and its ultimate irretrievability, life and death (the phrase later became a cheeky way to refer to Elvis’s own death)—nicely encapsulate the territory Conrad explores in his work. Yet Conrad hauntingly blurs all of these distinctions, letting these elements bleed and blend into one another.
In Backwater Blues’ implicit narrative, there is no experience to abruptly end, no grand personality implied that might be either here or not here. There is simply a present moment, an otherworldliness, a domestic past frozen sometime deep into its stages of decay: the effects of time are everywhere, but its ability to destroy—to truly end something—is called into question.
Conrad’s most definitive works are his large-scale sculptural installations of familiar, somewhat nostalgic domestic spaces in states of ruin and decay titled Dwellings [Dwelling No. 7 (Corsican Ram), Dwelling No. 6 (Blue Boy and Pinkie), and Dwelling No. 5 (Punching Bag), all 2013]. The appearance of dilapidation is produced with rust, debris, stain and sediment: the artist transforms his architectural constructions, fragments of domestic space, to show a fictive decay. It’s the act of creation, building, melded into the act of destruction, breaking down. Many of the household items he uses in his work—a taxidermied animal head, ornately framed portraits, old-fashioned textured wallpaper, another era’s lighting fixtures—are so generic and universal they might appear in a cartoon or an illustration to indicate “home.” Are we looking at a fragment of someone’s memory, of someone’s home? The artist wisely never specifies. There’s a haunting generality—an aesthetic that’s simultaneously personal and collective—to all of these domestic signifiers, and their imagined effacement by time has both increased anonymity and increased our awareness and curiosity about their possible past lives as the genuine objects of someone’s daily use.
In smaller works, Conrad removes the most identifiable signifiers: record album covers are no longer easily recognized due to a process of staged decay enacted by the artist himself. The multiple layers of suggested histories—the moment the music was recorded, the time of the record’s pressing, its purchase, subsequent use and enjoyment—are all contained and presented here, but they’re irrecoverable.
In Conrad’s world, time erases, but it is powerless to erase completely. I think this is both a trickster-like and admirable aspect of the artist’s work: he understands that our minds naturally seek out a narrative for objects and that without signifiers our imaginations start to fill in the blank spaces, even when we know the decay is an aesthetically implemented one. There seem to be possible personal reference points—albums, framed pictures—but Conrad consciously leaves things oblique and spacious. However the works’ titles are intriguingly systemized: large sculptural works are “Dwellings,” smaller wall-hung sculptures are “Remnants,” and the smallest works are “Debris.” The Elvis piece is an elaborately framed polaroid of Presley’s gravesite in the famous Meditation Garden at his former home of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. A whole chain of associations—a pilgrimage, a personal connection to a performer, a fleeting moment spent in a place that changes little—is implied but never specified.
Nearly every child who grew up exploring suburbia’s weird fringes probably came upon some derelict space like these, with its old objects and inhumed narratives. In one personal instance, I remember wondering if a stack of found old newspapers and magazines might be of any value and then having them, like nearly everything else in the ruin, crumble in my hands. Conrad’s work insistently expands into many dimensions—the three dimensions of space, into times present and past, and into personal memory.
There’s a touch of Southern-ness via the work’s sense of mystery, neglect, decay, loss—a Gothic hint of some unspecified, buried trouble that perhaps arises from the artists’ own Southern roots. All of these notes are echoed in the show’s title Backwater Blues and in the title of Conrad’s first New York solo show, Ain’t Dead Yet, at Fitzroy Gallery last year [November 15, 2012-February 22, 2013].
In the end, the works’ evocative, fictive place-ness, their implication of a dramatic tension between past and present, their theatrical lighting, their insistent occupation of three-dimensional space, their lack of easy delimitation, seem at heart to be pointing towards performance and theatre: they’re visual objects tinged with performance’s expansive sense of presence, narrative, and mystery.
I loved the work, but if I have a criticism it would be this: This world of memory and domesticity and decay and animal heads can feel familiar, for better and worse. Could this become a comfortable aesthetic groove that also leaves behind a comfortable interpretative groove? Conrad’s work looks like polished, accomplished fine art, which is both praise and criticism. Still, it’s powerful stuff. Especially touching are the festive carnival banners, now dirty and tattered. There’s an implied sequence of events: someone hung them, celebrated something, and then never removed them. It’s fitting critique for our current era, a time of cultural decay. But perhaps for Conrad, the dirtied traces and fragments are more powerful than the unsullied whole.
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