Shoelaces and Strollers: Turning Mundane Objects into Art
By BETH HARPAZ
Baby strollers, baseball bats, shoelaces: Artist Nari Ward uses these everyday objects to create a mood and build layers of meaning into what he calls an “epic narrative.” An exhibition called “Nari Ward: We the People,” is at Manhattan’s New Museum through May 26, 2019. The show is named for a wall hanging that spells out the first three words of the U.S. Constitution using shoelaces.
“I try to use readily recognizable mundane materials, and use that as a platform to first engage, and then dig deeper into the work itself or into (the viewers’) own notion of that thing and the experience of it,” Ward, a distinguished professor at Hunter College, said in an interview.
Ward says these multimedia sculptures have a “found object sensibility,” the result of “using things from the street and taking those things and giving them a sense of mystery.” But by bringing these objects “from the margins to the center,” they also become symbols of history, race, displacement, immigration, poverty, disenfranchisement, and many other themes.
One of Ward’s most haunting works is “Amazing Grace,” a roomful of baby carriages in various stages of decay that he found on the streets of Harlem. “There were a lot of empty lots where buildings were knocked down,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon to find four or five” strollers, many of which had been used by “marginalized individuals” to transport their belongings. The installation is lined with flattened firehoses from an abandoned firehouse where Ward’s studio is located.
Another work, “Iron Heavens,” created for the 1995 Whitney Biennial, displays charred baseball bats encrusted with cotton balls dipped in sugar. The New Museum’s explication says the bats “evoke the threat of violence,” while the “cotton and sugar” reference slavery.
Ward, who earned his B.A. from Hunter and M.F.A. from Brooklyn College, has this advice for young artists struggling to live their dreams: “Make sure that your studio practice becomes the central core of your interests. A lot of times, people get sidetracked with work, especially in New York because they have to find a way to pay the rent and survive. … The thing about it is to never side with the naysayers, and to really be your own support network.”