Q&A: John W. Ford Makes a Case for Small Things at Emory

By October 12, 2011
John W. Ford, House Not a Home: Angle of Repose, 2011 (detail), mixed media including printed elements, found objects, glass, wood, thread, string, and glue, 46 x 57 x 29 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Emory Visual Arts Gallery; click the image to zoom.

John W. Ford’s House Not a Home, the exhibit currently on view at Emory Visual Arts Gallery, leaves the viewer with the feeling of visiting a childhood home, only to realize that everything is a little more sinister and a lot less magical than you remember. It’s like crawling up to your grandmother’s attic and noticing that the doll you once told secrets to is missing a leg, and its unsettling eyes follow you around the room.

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In a recent email interview, Ford recognized the eerie fairy-tale quality of his structures. “The glass cases themselves could easily refer to museological displays that ‘archive’ a process of vaguely alien origin,” he explained. “Cast-off cigarette lighters allude to death by smoking, or even suggest pyromania. At the same time, associations are made to Gulliver and other epic fables. Literal and figurative ‘toys’ populate a miniature stage-set that is simultaneously playful and sinister.”

There’s comfort in the familiar, though, and there are enough personal elements in Ford’s assemblies that give an intimacy to the discord. The found objects that fill the glass, house-shaped casings suggest a permanent, immovable moment that only became tangible after the suspension of time. Each miniature object is a fragment of a story that, when clustered together, forms a stream-of-consciousness narrative about home, family, and time.

The work’s sentimental themes appear at a distance, and their negative space and stark framework cool down the attractive familiarity of the objects. Statues stand similarly atop large, solid white pedestals surrounded by thin glass, a juxtaposition that emphasizes both the idealization and fragility associated with the concept of home. If permanence and stability are what makes a house a home, then the anxiety of maintaining those virtues within a structure makes Ford’s House Not a Home a highly relatable show.

Read below for more excerpts from our interview.

John W. Ford, House Not a Home: Angle of Repose, 2011, mixed media including printed elements, found objects, glass, wood, thread, string, and glue, 46 x 57 x 29 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Emory Visual Arts Gallery.

Grace Thornton: What is the importance of the miniature glass housing around the assemblies? Do you want the audience to feel a certain amount of distance from what you’re portraying?

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John W. Ford: The vitrine is a form that refers to museology, archives, and protected space often associated with archaeology and/or visual anthropology, both disciplines of understanding that are a life-long fascination. As they are constructed of very thin wooden frames, and because the glass is very thin picture glass, I find their fragility is in harmony with the fragility of the sculpture inside. In fact, the sculpture inside is at some point influenced by the shape of the vitrine, so it is a bit erroneous on my part to suggest they are separate …. One does not exist without the other, or if they did, each would be incomplete and unsatisfactory.

I can also appreciate the tantalizing effect of the glass upon the viewer (or even me). When at a point of intimacy with the subjects on the inside, and yearning to touch, one is still prevented from direct interaction. In this way the work seems extremely real in a physical sense, yet creates a virtual experience of sorts. As in life, we often experience a frustration when at a point of intimacy.  But the glass is less about prevention or protection, since it would not be difficult to remove the barrier it implies. I also feel as if touch is critical to understanding, especially when it comes to unique found (or cherished) objects that help us define who we are, and the nature of the culture in which we live. So maybe the work is metaphorically related to our inability to fully experience, even when we are near experience.

In a way, I think the glass case may also be a way to honor the commonplace, to respect the inherent worth and meaning of the artifact. Put almost anything in a glass case, and it becomes something to be examined closely, and perhaps appreciated (or reviled) in ways we had not prior to its existence in a glass case.

Perhaps in the end, it is well to note that House Not a Home serves as one installment in a long series of works, A Case for Small Things.  Each piece is a case, and it is full of small things. As well, in an existential sense, these sculptures are a [different kind of] case, my argument on behalf of small things and their inherent importance. To gain an understanding of our relationship to small things, perhaps we gain in our understanding of being human.

John W. Ford, House Not a Home: Prosthetic Reflexion, 2011 (detail), mixed-media including printed elements, found objects, glass, wood, thread, string, and glue, 36 x 37 x 28 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Emory Visual Arts Gallery.

GT: It seems like we use memory as a way to immortalize ourselves by attempting to preserve the events in our lives, and art is often used to symbolize that process. Do you think your pieces are made more to memorialize your own life? Or do they reflect a more general sense of memory as a shared idea?

JWF: Honestly, I have no interest in being immortalized, either by my work or by alluding to narratives that might incidentally run through my work. The potential narratives of this work are mine, but they are also the viewer’s, so if [the audience’s] response leads to thoughts of mortality or immortality, then I am glad the work plays that role for them. Though these sculptures may seem to evoke the past, I truly believe they are as much about the present and the future. In that the work seems to have a quality of “arrested process,” it might be said that it deals with the indeterminate moment. Perhaps that moment is the extended process of making, perhaps that moment is the time the viewer engages the work, and perhaps those moments are the occasions I, or the viewer, recall an impression of having experienced the work.

So, yes, maybe there is something to the “shared idea” or shared experience to this work, but I would not reduce it to memory only. There is a definite shared experience of imagining and making, of experiencing model trains, of playing with game boards, of building imaginary spaces from sticks, of telling our life experiences, of experiencing a sense of wonder (or wander in the sense of physical or imaginary exploration).

And, yes, unavoidably there are aspects of my life experience that have influenced the work. It is a fact of my life that I have moved a great deal [and] that literal relocation and dislocation are a part of my life story. … For a personality like mine that is very sensitive to disruption in my life, perhaps this is why the house motif exists in all three … [in the sense that] I live in a house (or apartment), but I’ve lost a sense of home. I tend to think of this longer process as one that shapes who I am as a person, and that who I am as a person is always changing, so perhaps it is even too soon to immortalize myself even if I wanted to.

GT: You have said that your assembled work is “an adaptation of print-based imagery to three-dimensional form, an exploration of how a print might appear were it extended into space.” What can you portray about the narratives of memory in your 3-D assemblies that you did not convey in print?

JWF: I have come to realize that, despite the visual inter-relationships within my print-based and sculptural works, the making and viewing of each body of work is like experiencing apples and oranges. I am able to allude to depth and shallow space in my print-based work, but an essentially flat surface will always seem inadequate when compared to the spatiality and tactility of work that is in the round. I have always had a curiosity to look behind, to take apart, to go around, and to move in space, and these sculptures allow me to do that. I love the printed element, and the sculptures might never have come to fruition [if I had] not made graphic work [first]. But in my mind there is a substance to the sculpture that does not exist in the prints. So, the sculpture exists less to portray an idea or narrative and more to conjure an experience. It is the engagement that interests me, and I hope these works are engaging in the moment of experience.

House Not a Home was on view at the Emory Visual Arts Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia through October 20, 2011.

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