A large eye — unfocused and soft, jaunty in another circumstance, but here with an opaque expression that could signal fear or resignation or resistance — peers out through an opening in the structure, where its owner is tightly trussed. The dirty, faded blue plush elephant is confined in one of a series of rectangular bundles that make up part of Exodus, one of the most complex and affective sculptural installations in “Nari Ward: We the People,” currently on view at the New Museum through May 26. Ward moved with his family from his native Jamaica to Harlem when he was a child in the 1970s, and this is the first major museum survey of his ongoing career in the city where he has lived nearly his whole life. His artworks have a protean diversity, but what holds Ward’s œuvre together is that most are constructed from scavenged (or otherwise found) materials with multifaceted and reverberating links to the cultural communities that are the sources of these objects even as he synthesizes new contexts for them, investigating themes like abstraction, surveillance, refuse, culture, identity and citizenship.
Ward originally created Exodus for the 1993 Venice Biennale — although not (yet) a household name outside of the art world, he has been a prominent fixture on the international scene for decades — and the work has only become more topical in the intervening quarter century. The focal point of Exodus is a round, “mandala-like” wall piece, a little larger than human scale, made of a tangle of twisted fire hoses punctuated by a vertical trio of more orderly spirals of hose. Arranged in three rows stretching into the gallery are dozens of bundles like the one containing the stuffed elephant. These roughly shaped rectangles contain clothes, shoes, bags and toys compressed by lengths of fire hose irregularly screwed together, the screws sometimes piercing the items inside; many sections of the hose have been cut or scorched. A handful of these bundles maintain their shapes but are empty. This, of course, is a collection of useful, if tragic, metaphors for the plight of refugees.
Ward has talked about Exodus as referring to a history of demographic migration specific to Harlem, with waves of immigration from the southern US and from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, as well as the pressures of gentrification chipping away at communities and forcing people and businesses to leave the neighborhood and move elsewhere. Indeed, the people to whom all these items belonged are insistently absent. They are not items literally left behind by refugees — although the artwork certainly evokes that narrative — but left behind in the sense of Ward’s scavenging materials from refuse around Harlem and from junkyards. While there is definitely some levity (the elephant and some colorful sequined clothes sticking out), and while the work is fundamentally more abstract than didactic, it has an honorific, elegiac feel.
Ward is far from unique in using and transforming found materials — Betye Saar or Jack Whitten, for example, share much with him — a helpful contrast is Danh Vo, who had a solo show at the Guggenheim in the spring of 2018. The Vietnamese-born Danish artist also creates installations out of found materials, but the difference between Ward and Vo is in the sources of the materials and how they procure them. Both Ward and Vo make evocative, highly critical, political artwork, but while Ward collects everyday materials from what anonymous people throw away or leave behind in the community, Vo favors glamorous and specific objects associated with celebrity. A representative work of Vo’s is Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs (2013). The First Lady had given these chairs to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara after President Kennedy’s assassination, and Vo bought them at the auction of McNamara’s estate (as the lot number in the title emphasizes). The artist displayed the chairs in pieces, having removed the upholstery, stuffing and the rest of the parts from the frames, perhaps in an attempt to exorcise these cursed objects associated with the Vietnam War.
In contrast to Vo’s work, using materials from the highest halls of power and associated with the most prominent of proper names, Ward’s installation Amazing Grace (1993) required him to collect hundreds of abandoned baby strollers. If Vo went to a Sotheby’s auction to bid on chairs Jackie Kennedy herself had given as a gift, Ward collected strollers, one-by-one, more or less from the trash. I’m not putting a value judgment on estate sales or dumpster diving, and I’m not saying that either source implicitly makes for better or worse art. But the comparison highlights some of Ward’s most vital concerns: His work isn’t about just the violent foreign policy of the Kennedy administration, it’s about everyone.
At the New Museum, Amazing Grace fills the sides of a gallery with tight rows of these mismatched strollers. At the center, a path of flattened fire hoses surrounds another, denser group of strollers covered with a kind of net of twisted fire hoses. A recording of magisterial gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performing the titular hymn plays on a loop. The wall label explains that Ward sees this installation as taking the form of a womb, but that it also evokes more sinister references like slave ships. The emptiness of the mass of strollers creates another level of poignancy: strollers can be used for babies, but homeless people also use them to transport their possessions. The brutality of life, the strife of being cast aside by society, the tragic losses from violence or from AIDS — these are all strong themes that Ward investigates through his alchemy with such modest found objects.
“Nari Ward: We the People” is a large show that expands on all of these ideas and artistic strategies. Hunger Cradle (1996) creates a vault of stretched rope and yarn supporting furniture and other objects over visitors’ heads. The installation Iron Heavens (1995) juxtaposes a collage of patterned oven pans with rows of hand-charred baseball bats leaning against the wall. A series of mostly two-dimensional works is based on a distinctive pattern of breathing holes that Ward discovered in the floor of a Savannah, GA, church that had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. Other works use plastic deli bags as both decoration and structure; still others have grown crusts of sugar crystals from controversial Harlem cultural icon Tropical Fantasy soda.
What emerges is that Ward is a keen sociologist who has a gift for metaphor and a sharp eye for finding exquisite objects to help him communicate.