Catalog Essay for Trash Talk: History in Assemblage
The Salvage Barn
I first encountered Jim Condron’s work in the summer of 2014 in Montauk, New York, when we were among a small group of writers and artists who spent the month of July in a big white barn, as guests of the Edward Albee Foundation. Condron told me he was a painter, but that he’d reached an impasse with his medium. It had lost its expressive power, he said, and he’d set the month aside to try something new. Within a few days he’d set up a workshop and was busily constructing small sculptures out of things he found around the barn, along the roadside, in the parking lot of the IGA.
I don’t actually know where he was getting these scraps of mesh, plastic sporks, oddly shaped pieces of wood, twine, sticks, and printed matter. Sometimes, from my second-floor writer’s studio, I saw him stalking the woods like a bird dog. Or he would take off for a few hours and return with a cardboard box full of items to be spread out and sorted through—each one examined for clues as to its potential. He worked beaverishly, combining his found materials with wire, cord, construction glue, and blobs of paint.
It was clear that he was onto something, because the objects he was making had the immediate impact of gris-gris. They gave off energy. Most were small enough to hold in the palm your hand. Some seemed to have mouths or appendages, while others were anti-anthropomorphic—deploying shape and balance (or its lack) to subvert familiarity, like gestures in a severe modern dance. There were ruminative phases, fascinating to witness. In my mind’s eye, I see a squarish piece of cast concrete sporting a strip of fur like an unfortunate Sunday hat. I see him rotating it forty-five degrees and rescuing it from banality.
While Condron made his tiny sculptures, I was in an upstairs room at the other end of the barn writing a doomed memoir. I fell into the habit of breaking every day for a
late afternoon swim in the bay, rinsing off the ocean salt in the outdoor shower on the side of the barn, and watching the bats swoop around in the twilight. If the prospect of returning to my desk was too miserable, I’d visit Condron in his studio. His project seemed much more fun than mine. Once, I spotted a sock I had been missing, fitted around a chunk of wood and frosted with a toupee of orange paint, which picked up a detail in the wool, and I felt a thrill of participation.
I began beachcombing after my daily swims, and bringing Condron my offerings. A bright blue swatch of plastic netting, part of a Frisbee, a sun-bleached ferry ticket. He was appreciative, but selective in a way that I understood. It occurs to me now that we were engaged in similar work. It would not have been possible for him to explain why he chose this and not that, why these things went together in this way, any more than I could account for the several days I’d spent on my laptop moving an orange crate, a candle, my nineteen-year-old mother, and a cabinet full of K-rations around my father’s graduate-school apartment.
By the end of our month in the barn, I had written thirty or forty pages, and Condron had made about as many artworks—the ancestors, I believe, of the sculptures in Trash Talk: History in Assemblage. Though his work has grown in complexity and, in some cases, size, I see the lineage in pieces such as “I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people say” or “Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” It’s there in the energy, and in the preponderance of mesh, wood, and blobs of paint. (Condron’s impulse may have been to change gears, but his sculptures are not exactly not paintings.)
Condron’s titles are chatty but mysterious, like scraps of overheard conversation. The ones in Trash Talk, which are scavenged from literary texts, come with interlocutors; he has paired these assemblages with bitchy quotes from the world of arts and letters. “I don't mind if you're not equal to me for a while,” meet “That's not writing. That's typing.”
It’s too bad I was unaware of his gift for titles during our time in the Albee barn. When we parted, he let me select two pieces. I chose one made from a bit of weathered planking in a spray-painted mesh girdle, and one with a broken piece of branch glued onto a surface that looks like but is not astroturf. If they have titles, I never learned what they are. They hang on my wall, nameless, waiting to burst forth in verbiage
Review of Jim Condron and Timothy Horjus at Goucher University
A broken-down 1940s tractor sits in Goucher University’s Silber Gallery in Baltimore, Md., like an escaped relic from a history museum. Its large knobby tires are cracked with age, the plow hitched to it is rusted beyond use, and there’s a large chest wound in the engine block where a motor used to cough this mechanical beast to life. Curiously, snatches of fur line parts of the tractor, sleeved around the steering wheel, laced around a front rim in place of a tire. Even more odd, the entire thing’s parked atop a rectangular sea of clear-plastic-wrapped, red-and-white peppermint candy, like a Félix González-Torres installation turned into a living room throw rug. A card attached to the white-wood border containing the peppermints reads: “Eat the candy” and “Diminishing marginal utility.”
Jim Condron gives this sculptural installation a mouthful of a name—”It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee”—and every one of the 25 mixed-media works included in his Diminishing Returns solo exhibition have such verbally overstuffed titles. In another campus gallery, the geometric paintings in Timothy J. Horjus’ Subverted Sublime solo show also feature idiosyncratic titles, such as “Want someone else to deliver the goods” and “So perf, so PINK.,” that read like the fragmentary thoughts of an email subject line or internet meme. Both Baltimore-based artists are exploring some sense of what abstraction looks like in the 21st-century. And they’re both navigating, in their own vocabularies, that tense chasm where contemporrary daily life transpires, sandwiched between the seemingly endless technological abundance and the blunt want of economic austerity.
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Condron dives headfirst into the poverty of abundance. Looking over the materials that meet up his mixed-media works here reads like a list of items scrounged during a night of dumpster diving: felt, foam, fur, leather, silk, paper, wax, wool, vintage tractor parts, vintage plow, and vinyl, in addition to acrylic, latex, spray, and oil paints. Visually, Condron’s mixed-media installations and paintings recall Robert Rauschenberg Combines and arte povera’s radical simplicity, but he’s turned the assemblage’s collage power into a political hammer.
On two walls of the Silber Gallery, Condron hangs a series of paintings that decrease in size from left to right on one wall, from top to bottom on the other, and there’s a narrative and political logic to the installation. The painting’s titles narrate oblique, aphoristic stories. One seven painting sequence reads, from largest canvas (55 by 66 inches) to smallest (five by six inches): “I had the sense of coming home to myself, and of having found out what a little circle man’s experience is;” “He could bring the drama of antique life before one out of the shadows-white figures against blue backgrounds;” “When he was tired, his lectures were clouded, obscure, elliptical; but when he was interested they were wonderful;” “Our instructors were oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, stranded ministers of the Gospels, a few enthusiastic young men out of graduate schools;” “Subsequent experiences with rattlesnakes taught me that my first experience was fortunate in circumstance;” “He was not merely a big snake, I thought-he was a circus monstrosity;” “They were big and warm and full of light, like the sun shining on brown pools in the wood;” “I suppose it hasn’t any form, it hasn’t any title either.”
Reading the paintings in descending order of size almost feels like reading pages ripped out of some postmodern comic artist’s graphic novel about a homesteader’s journal, each linen canvas a blurry, smudged illustration of the title’s text. “I had the sense of coming home to myself” is a smudge of blue oil marred by splotches of white; dense layers of black obscure whatever else may be contained in “They were big and warm,” a few streaks of coral red sneaking out form the black smudge the only hints that something else may be obscured. Condron’s paintings are not expressive, gestural abstractions; they’re the visual manifestations of the messy, chaotic effects of wear and tear on the things made by human enterprise, reminders that time eventually erases all things.
And sometimes, man even helps that erasure along a bit. One small oil-and-plaster-on-linen painting, placed high up on the wall, is titled “There was nothing but land: not a country at all but the material out of which countries are made.” It’s a lined cribbed from Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia—many, if not all, of the titles appear to be Cather quotes—which tells the story of an immigrant worker in late 19th-century Nebraska. It’s a novel about the lower-class hardships of the American West, and Condron’s works here offer a sobering reminder of how quickly working people’s fortunes can turn.
He’s using old farm implements for a reason. The rusty plows, tillers, and tractors of mechanized farming that Condron uses here were still a ways off from the era Cather covers a century back in My Antonia, but those implements might as well be from the bronze age to us 21st-century consumers fed by a global industrial food industry. And how Condron treats them makes them look even more obsolete. A vintage plow’s blade and wheel are draped in white fur, pink and teal felt, and wool yarn, and plastic in “Mental excitement was apt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figures scattered upon it,” making this outmoded tool almost comically pointless. People once used something like this to feed themselves?
Of course, everything old was once state of the art, and it’s one of human intelligence’s grand jokes to assume that the time in which we live is so advanced and modern compared to the past. Diminishing Returns, Condron’s exhibition title, is the economic theory that says that additions to the production process of a product will, eventually, lead to lower returns on that product. Speaking reductively, in labor force terms, it means that if the technology stays the same, hiring more workers eventually leads to lower output and, as a result, lower profits and earnings. The bulk of today’s labor force may primarily be found in the information and service industries, but the law of diminishing marginal returns suggests that at some point, the more workers that enter such economies, the less they’ll produce and make.
What will people do to survive then? That tractor that dominates the gallery isn’t going to help produced anything that people can consume. And, understood within the cruel economic logic that Condron explores in his works, its title now sounds like an alarm: It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. Condron’s Diminishing Returns work, in materials and perspective, comes from the perspective of people living far downstream from which prosperity ostensibly trickles down. So go ahead. Eat the candy. Who knows where the next meal may be coming from?
Jim Condron: Picking Up the Pieces
Jim Condron’s recent exhibition, Picking Up the Pieces, is simultaneously elegant, boisterous, witty, and moving. The show demonstrates not only Condron’s innate talent, but also what an artist can do when given the time and means to produce a body of work. Condron is a recent recipient of a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant, an Adolf and Esther Gottlieb Foundation grant, and a Maryland State Arts Council grant for sculpture. Picking up the Pieces includes his work of the last three years, but much of it is from 2016-17.
The installation, designed by the artist, presents painting and sculpture together, drawing a close relationship between the two. Some of this connection is dependent upon the placement of the works, but much of it relates to the facts that the sculptures bring many of the forms in the paintings to three-dimensional existence, and that they demonstrate the same kind of exultant color and gestures present in the paintings. At times, the paintings themselves contain sculptural elements. Not content with a solely formal presentation, Condron also assigns narrative titles to each object; the title of the show suggests deeper meanings too.
Indeed, each painting or sculpture offers possible tales even before reading the titles, prominently placed on labels next to the works. The gallery also includes the more contemporary checklist for viewers, but the labels are elegantly designed and positioned with intention. The message is that the titles matter, though they are not necessary to enjoy the work nor to recognize that something beyond form and color is present. Condron keeps a running list of titles which he creates from sentence fragments taken from books he has read. The titles are important to him, but they are assigned after each work is completed. The independence of the texts from their original sources creates a temporal dislocation echoed in the works themselves.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do is a large painting/construction that includes down feathers, wool, wood, and linen. It is a seascape interrupted by an architectural form filled with yarn and feathers. Perhaps there was a shipwreck? A wonderfully executed expressionist painting, it also operates on a narrative plane, suggesting, though not overtly telling, a story of difficulty, even one of tragedy. The epic poem of Odysseus/Ulysses comes to mind. Yet, the Dadaesque mixing of images and objects offers an absurdist humor and the painting retains a kind of childlike delight.
Similarly, she was interested in his work. But it really doesn’t matter what he did, he could have been an anthropologist, demonstrates the same kind of combination of lyricism and the comedic. Condron bases this painting on the story of two Christian martyrs, the brothers Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of physicians, pharmacists, and dentists, who lived in the 3rd century C.E., during the rule of the Roman emperor Diocletian, an avowed anti-Christian. Trained as doctors in Syria, the twin brothers treated the sick for free, and they are credited with many miracles. They were persecuted and tortured and attempts to drown the brothers and to burn them were ineffective. Ultimately, they were decapitated. The specific narrative of interest in this work is that depicted by Zanobi Strozzi, in Sts Cosmas and Damian Saved from Drowning from the early 15th century. After being thrown off a cliff, the brothers undid the bindings around their hands and feet and emerged free from the sea. Condron pairs this painting with a sculpture, Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.
The painting recalls landscapes by such 19th century artists as Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Moran. It shares their asymmetrical compositions and flair for the dramatic with references to the sublime. Condron builds up his surface beyond a heavy impasto, using foam to create actual depth, not just implied depth. He sets explosive contrasts of color, from hot pink to red to various shades of blue and brown. It is a tragic scene, though its reference to the sublime is contradicted by the bright palette and thick areas of foam. The sculpture to its left, Live as if you’d drop dead…. implies the cross and martyrdom. Questions are posed: Are artists martyrs to capitalism even though their chosen career makes them no different than a plumber or an anthropologist? Are we not all subject to tragedy? Should we not all live as if each day is our last? While these ideas are presented with humor, they are not unimportant. Through his combination of the absurd with the sublime, Condron explores narratives not only specific to being an artist but also those shared by all of us. The balancing of the serious with the comedic is one of the strengths of Condron’s work.
Near this associated grouping of painting and sculpture is another work that seems connected with the sea, there was [sic] things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. It is a painted sculpture, made dimensional through wood, foam, and cement. The body of the boat is an arc with attached “ribs” that form a sail and oars. The shadow on the wall from this sculpture emphasizes its boat-like shape, and recalls galley ships rowed in antiquity. Foamy clouds physically join and burst through the “sail.” The dramatic shadow it casts on the wall emphasizes a sea-craft silhouette. Catty-corner to this work is an expressionist painting that also addresses truth and falsehood, it’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine when it’s not.
Sculpture is an important voice in this exhibition and in the artist’s recent work. The individual objects form a whole. However, each has its own character too. Not only is there a relationship between painting and sculpture, but there is a link to the past, to Neo-Dada and Funk three-dimensional works of the early sixties as well. He reminds us that we have a history, not to be forgotten, but to be used to anchor us in the present and point us to the future. Several presentation methods, from object specific shelving, elegant cases, and uniquely-crafted metal wall mounts that push the sculptures forward about eight inches from the wall, contribute to the strength of the installation. Condron makes objects that often wittingly reference something useful. Their humor and bright colors charm viewers. Taken together with the paintings, these often-whimsical constructions contribute to the joy of the exhibition. This body of work places Condron as a seeker of knowledge. How do we survive in a complex and difficult world? He strives to answer this through his artwork, and though it represents his own personal journey, we are lucky that he shares it with us.
1 Mónica Ann Walker Vadillo, “Saints Damian and Cosmas,”
2 Email correspondence with the artist, November 24, 2017.
-J. Susan Isaacs
I quit: Recent Paintings by JIm Condron
The obvious shared feature of several new paintings by Jim Condron is their relatively small size compared to other publicly displayed works by the Baltimore artist. Each of these works is about the size of a book cover, a somehow apposite comparison given the artist's explicit literary references in the past. Working at this scale encourages playfulness and experimentation, and partly for this reason these paintings have the character of milestones on a journey. By limiting the space upon which he works, the artist is required not to do more with less, necessarily – but to imagine more or to imagine deeper into a given space. Large canvasses may be particularly suitable for making bold statements, but working small often means pushing boundaries within.
“Her talk is like my secret writing” (oil on paper on silk, 5 x 5.5 inches, 2013) might inspire a neo-formalist analysis by some latter-day Clement Greenberg, but what enticed this writer was the swirling milk-chocolatey paint laid thick with a knife on paper. It conjured up a sensuous memory, that of sticking my finger into a bowl of buttery cake frosting and licking it off. Truly “sensational” events tend to be channeled deep in our minds, and each of these works by Mr. Condron, layered and built up with paint as they are, combine, appeal to, and play off both the visual and tactile senses.
Mr. Condron hints of his close association and love for books in the ironically titled “I have no time to read” (oil on paper on leather, 5 x 8.75 inches, 2013), in which the painting is mounted on a strip of pebbled brown morocco, for centuries a style of treated leather favored by bookbinders. He builds a dense impasto by mixing and shaping paint with a palette knife or other instrument to create uncertain topographies suggested by ridges and troughs imbued with rich color. The result is like a map representing no geographic location, but a projection instead of interior life, with edges neatly trimmed. There is a sculptural character to the work, and no reading of it seems complete without taking into account the feel of the thing. But therein lies the rub: we don't usually go around handling works of art, though perhaps we should.
Strips of mink fur (re-purposed) frame the third painting, entitled “Could you hate me less” (oil on handmade paper on board, mink; 8.5 x 8.5 inches, 2013). The painting is composed of rough nodes and smooth planes of oils in moody hues of indigo, blue, olive, gold, cadmium yellow and white. These seem to bubble up and erupt from the paper as if sprung from thermal wells, a kind of materialization of emotional life. But there's something else here. At the center, in what appears to be a quiet recess, are a glancing pair of alert, calm eyes in the midst of this chromatic uproar. The eyes appear feminine. They cast a side-long look not at the viewer, but at the world beyond, as though apprehending something invisible to us. To be honest, these eyes may be nothing more than an accident of perception – another way of saying that one viewer, or many, may just be seeing things. But we have a proclivity to see things, like the image of the Virgin Mary on a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich. (Someone paid lots of money for it!) To paraphrase Nietzsche: stare into a painting long enough, and the painting will stare back. Yet if we want to respect the possibilities inherent in a work of art, and the intentions of the artist, and our own intentions as well, then we are called to respond to them by first opening ourselves to all the vivifying elements of personal experience – our senses, our memories, inclinations, feelings, thoughts. Even the “wrong” ones, the ones that put us on a different track altogether.
- John Waite
John Waite is the owner of John Waite Rare Books, a bookseller specializing in appraisal and/or sale of fine and unusual books of all kinds, autographs, documents, manuscripts and ephemera. Particular interest in the appraisal and placement of archives large and small.
When Here And Now Cease To Matter: Jim Condron's Recent Paintings
There is a lovely painting called Honeysuckle that Jim Condron completed earlier this summer. On a sheet of paper less than two feet square, he works the surface densely to suggest foliage, snaking tendrils, and blossoms, and beyond these he renders earth in dirty grays and pinks and suggests a deep overgrown space with patches of dark blue and black. It is an exquisite evocation of a corner of nature. Somewhat surprisingly however, Condron laughs out loud at the suggestion that he might be a nature painter: “Never did I want to be a nature painter!” he protests. “Flowers would be the last things I'd have said I wanted to paint.” But in fact much of the mazy fascination of Jim Condron's art is discovered not just in the distance between what he intended for it and what it actually is, but in the space between what it is and the words that he feels you can apply to it.
Condron made this picture, like all of his recent work, in the garden that he helped create around his home in the suburbs of Baltimore. It comes from a series of pictures that he calls “Grounds,” denoting not only that they picture flowering groundcover, but also that their subject is what he calls “the ground on which I live.” “I was letting myself wander about the space,” he explains of his painting process, “and seeing if I could get it to read as a flat pattern but still make it possible to move around and into the space. That's what the paintings are all about, really.”
In fact they're actually about far more than that, whether or not he finds it easy to talk about. Because the suggestion of moving into the physical space of his paintings is an eloquent metaphor for what he calls “literally digging into my internal self.” In other words, while he occupies himself with translating natural appearances into paint, this process is simply the platform for his actual, more substantial subject matter.
Condron borrowed T. S. Eliot's phrase “Home is where one starts from” as the title of a recent exhibition, and he explains that, like Eliot, he wanted to suggest “that an internal home is the true content of the work, regardless of the apparent subject.” Then he hesitates, before clarifying: “It's the spiritual … not that that's something we talk about these days.”
Though he says his painting practice makes him feel “not of my time,” Jim Condron is a painter precisely for our times because of his authentic post-modernism. He is concerned not with novelty but with finding in the observation of the external world a sensory equivalent for his own spiritual realities. In this, though he would be embarrassed to have it pointed out, he has a great deal in common with his own artistic heroes. “I admire artists who feel,” he says, before mentioning Monet, Cezanne, de Kooning, and Guston. “They're painters who have conviction, regardless of the time they're working in.”
Reflecting on the role of nature in his art, Jim Condron admits that he is “not the painter that I wanted to be.” We should take this opportunity to celebrate precisely the painter that he is.
– Robert Ayers
Robert Ayers is a British-born writer and artist. He is a regular contributor to ARTnews and Huffington Post.
Jim Condron's paintings attempt to access and depict a realm of experience beyond conceptualization. If that enterprise is paradoxical, it is anything but self-defeating, and it both reflects and rewards disciplined concentration.
Condron's work is shaped as much by its refusals as by its affirmations. He dispenses with the often facile ironies that characterize much contemporary art—ironies that, looked at steadily, reveal themselves as symptoms of exhaustion and sterility, of an essentially parasitic sensibility. His engagement with the artistic past—especially with such comparatively recent figures as de Kooning, Diebenkorn, and Guston—is sophisticated but never arch, and he affirms the possibility that applied paint can communicate realities that outstrip the intellect. In their evident mastery of the medium, his canvases are painterly; in their cognizance of the history of painting, they are erudite as well.
A Jim Condron painting always has two subjects: the paint itself, and the experience of seeing, which for Condron is largely an interior event. The figurative subject serves as an occasion to explore the relation between outer flux and inner ground, and hence between change and constancy. The act of perceiving that dynamic—the deeper subject of his work—requires giving up all ideation. Seeing then means experiencing that the inner ground of the subject and the inner ground of the painter are one and the same. But aiming for that sort of ontological depth does not mean giving up beauty; Condron is a superb colorist, with lush palettes and vibrant brushwork. The world as he sees it is a visually sumptuous place.
It is also an inviting place. Condron's paintings display a strikingly authentic sense of space. The obligatory flatness of most modern painting, though it may involve spatial push and pull, seldom allows for the skillful creation of what might be termed participatory space, an area in which Condron excels. Relatively few contemporary painters—John Walker, and Eric Aho come to mind—work in this vein, which goes beyond geometric perspective and draws viewers into an organic cosmos. In Condron's case, the effect is of his having put marks into space rather than on the canvas. In his studies of a weeping blue atlas cedar, the tree luxuriates in space, extending itself in several directions. Around it recede landscapes that one could seemingly walk into, around, and through, but they do not indicate any vanishing point. Space is rendered not geometrically but experientially, and therefore convincingly.
The cedar paintings form one of several series in which Condron depicts the same object over time, mostly en plein air. As with Cezanne's Mont Sainte Victoire or Morandi's domestic tableware, the sequence of canvases allows Condron to preserve the object as a sort of experimental control, so that he can examine more precisely the act of perception, even as he seeks to capture the object in what Maritain would call the act of existing. In a kind of subtraction by addition, the accumulated images convey the sense of a changeless essence discoverable beneath the shiftings of light, color, and form.
But Condron's approach and process, as subtle as they are, would mean little if the resulting paintings didn't resonate with viewers. And therein lies the decisive strength of his work: the common inner ground of painter and figurative subject is also shared between the painting and the viewer. Condron's canvases present more than form, color, and light; they communicate his sense of the energy and space within each of the objects he depicts. That enlivening force endows his work with the sort of vigor and immediacy that escape all but the most accomplished and disciplined artists. A Jim Condron painting is not so much an art object as a transformative experience, one that defies discursive thought even as it engages the history of the medium.
– David Soud
David Soud is a former teacher and freelance writer who recently earned a DPhil in English at Oxford. This blog, a Christmas gift from a thoughtful stepson, is one more arena where I can enjoy writing about people and things that interest me, whoever and whatever they may be.