Playful, offbeat, and insouciant are words that may come to mind as you view the sculptures of Jim Condron ’92. Made primarily with castoff materials and the detritus of everyday life, Condron’s constructions have a casual air about them.
Spend a bit of time with them, though, and the calculated craft and visual sophistication soon will make an impression. Part dumpster-diver and part conjurer, Condron wrests from seemingly unpromising items a surprising elegance beyond their humble means.
More laden with history and meaning than any raw material you could pick up in an art supply store, the objects Condron employs in his sculpture bring their own baggage, and he likes it that way. “Discarded fragments carry a history, and I embed that history—the life of the object—into my pieces,” he wrote in an artist statement.
A chunk of a chair, a used glove, or a scrap of argyle fabric all have associations of use or culture attached to them. The combination of these objects in the sculptures—some of which are immediately discernible and others which are more obscure—inspire viewers to seek connections and potential meaning. “I believe that the objects sort of knit something together,” said Condron. “They contain a history, and so when I put them together, they enter into a dialogue.”
Condron, an artist based in Baltimore and New York, double majored in art history and English, and then attended the New York Studio School to continue his training. A decade later he earned an M.F.A. at the Maryland Institute College of the Arts, where he teaches today. Condron has won several coveted recognitions for his work, including grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Esther and Adolph Gottlieb Foundation, as well as a residency at the Edward F. Albee Foundation in Montauk on Long Island. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and it can be found in prominent public and private collections.
Condron has been busy of late. A solo exhibition of his work, Collected Things & Sculptures from the Collected Items of Artists, Writers, and Thinkers, opened in mid-May at Art Cake in Brooklyn, and he participated in three group shows at other venues in New York City running almost concurrently.
For the Art Cake show, Condron brought together more than 40 pieces, many of which were constructed using items given to him by people whose work he admires. These portraits, as Condron loosely thinks of them, at times refer to their subjects directly using tools of their trade.
The piece devoted to the late Grace Hartigan, an abstract expressionist painter, a fixture in the New York School milieu of the late 1950s, and a Baltimore legend, contains a pair of her painting shoes and a paint-mixing stick.
“Hartigan is one of the most famous people in the show. I was a student and later graduate assistant of hers at the Maryland Institute,” Condron said. “The shoes were the last ones she wore. The pillow has a Matisse-like pattern, and Matisse had a big influence on her.” Another piece, devoted to writer Lucy Sante, features a disemboweled typewriter, but also an old beer mat, a firecracker with a cartoon monkey, and a weathered doorknob.
As you might expect from a former English major, poetry plays an important part in Condron’s thought and work. He explicitly embraces poetry in his art, sometimes using lines of poems that are meaningful to him as titles. In one sense, the individual objects in Condron’s sculptures—like a pharmaceutical bottle or a ping-pong paddle—could even be seen as atomic units of the works, in the way the word is the building block of a poem.
“I thought of Lucy’s piece as a rebus, a kind of word puzzle,” said Condron. “But it was a rebus that didn’t really have a solution. I wanted the objects in it to maintain their individuality, but I didn’t have an end game. In other works, the individual pieces I used were subjugated to the overall whole and not as clearly shown.”
Some of the cross-disciplinary seeds between art and literature that inform Condron’s work were sown and germinated during Condron’s time at Colby. “I was a little rough around the edges at first, but I loved narratives,” he recalled, crediting the late Charles W. Bassett, the Lee Family Professor of American Studies and English, emeritus, as an “incredible” professor. “Every single senior would take his class because he was just a brilliant teacher. My love for the short story came out of his class.”
Condron’s study of poetry provided him a blueprint for his art-making. “I enjoyed reading poetry. I had an obsession with Dante, and I also read Pope, Eliot, Charles Simic, Philip Larkin, and William Carlos Williams,” he said. “With poetry, I would go to a place where I could get it almost intuitively at first, then I would analyze it. I began to understand that that’s how I wanted to make art and needed to take an intuitive rather than an analytical approach. It’s a very different way of creating than someone else might do, where they know what they are going to make and they execute.”
In addition to his sculpture, Condron has a daily drawing practice, sketching the environs wherever he finds himself, and he also paints abstractly. “My paintings are often layered one-shots, entirely intuitive. I’m not considering the subject. It’s as basic as an art practice could be,” he said.
And while Condron principally uses found objects for his sculptures, he is not averse to a trip to the hardware store for adhesives, foams, or fillers, which he juices with tints to inject painterly characteristics into his 3D work.
“I think the sculptural and painting practices feed each other. I’m often beginning a work motivated by color, and these commercial materials bring enlivening qualities for me,” he said. “If I’m using Great Stuff [spray foam insulation] for example, I’m thinking of it as slathered on paint and it transforms it. In the same way, I’ll use the transparency of glass bottles like a painted glaze.”
Along with the visual richness and wry humor, viewers of Condron’s current work also get a dose of hope. Willed into his works is the belief that unwanted dreck and sidewalk dross can become, through the agency of human invention, a captivating and charismatic artifact.