With Jordan Peele’s Us still swimming in my head, I went to see the first museum survey in New York of Jamaican-born, Harlem-based artist Nari Ward at the New Museum. You don’t have to know a thing about contemporary art for his work to resonate with you just like you don’t have to know a thing about the finer points of public policy and history to get it when a good comedian brings up subjects like disenfranchisement and slavery. You just get it. What you get with Nari Ward is an artist tapping and ticking at our collective conscious. This is a powerful show that will remain with you.
Things aren’t quite right, are they? Let’s take what’s around us, various found objects on the great landscape of humanity, and say something with them. How about bricks? They’re easy enough to find and don’t cost much at all. They’re practically giving those away. Let the bricks represent whatever feels right to you in this context: a struggle being evoked, brick by brick; a recovery, a rebuilding, brick by brick. Then take it further, add some copper on top of each brick; and then further still and add a design, some kind of pattern that all the copper-topped bricks put together add up to when displayed upon the gallery floor. That is what I first saw of Nari Ward’s work when the elevator doors opened upon the main show.
And then I saw the eerie elegance of all those bottles (with messages inside of them!) while I also tuned into the ironic and hypnotic sounds made up of bits and pieces of vintage banter from classic Warner Bros. and Disney animation. “Hey, come over here.” Some creepy whistling. Then, “So pretty!” It was emanating from some contraption made up of a menagerie of discarded parts and emblazoned with an all-American eagle. And there’s so much more to experience: all meticulous collecting forgotten relics and recontextualizing them. Some of the most striking work is a series of large circles sitting inside squares. Maybe 80×80″. They could be globes. And they seem to be tracking somethings with a multitude of nails holding up a vast network of wire. Are they tracking hope, or despair? Maybe both. They come in various shades and colors.
Much more. There’s a whole room dedicated to work constructed from old fire hoses. There are a bunch of small constructs that resemble battered luggage all leading up to a massive circular piece looking down on them. There’s also a room that displays a house made up of some many pages of the Madonna and Child and that encloses what looks like fish scales and dried bananas. And, just before you leave, make sure to view the stately grandfather clock, a tried a true fixture in countless wealthy homes. Take a good look at it. You’ll see an eerie burst of protest has replaced the clock’s face. There’s an odd-looking centerpiece to this burst that refers back to the big circular pieces. And inside, down below where the weights reside, there are two African figures trapped inside forlornly looking out.
Nari Ward: We the People is on view at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York City, February 13–May 26, 2019. For more details go right here.