the past thirty years Herndon Ely has been
putting together a radically new history of
America. This is not a history based on recently
discovered presidential diaries or new evidence
about the great social upheavals of our time—but
rather based on, say, spoons. Spoons and brushes,
tools, toys, musical instruments, sewing machines,
cleansers, tins, paper-doll Puritans, flags,
paint cans, and a vast panorama of other objects
fill her enormous loft on New York's Lower
East Side from end to end.
came of age in the era of mass production, and
its history is inseparable from its products—which
is exactly the point of Ely's polymorphous creation.
But this is far from a display of collectable
usual pricey tramp pieces bought at auction or
the outsider art bargained for at flea markets.
Everything here is certifiable junk; all of
it found on the street. These are the things
that people have thrown out, the orphaned objects
of American abundance. And, as Ely points out,
such an amassment of objects could only be possible
in the USA because it is one of the few countries
with such prodigious garbage.
countries are either too tidy or too impoverished
for trash to linger on their streets," says
Ely—tiny, angular, in long skirt, boots
and sporting long blonde braids—resembles
a cross between Eudora Welty and an East Village
Blanche Dubois in her tin-can bracelets and
red and black mismatched gloves.
in Wonderland is in four sections,"
she tells me. "The birth of Alice, the House
in the Forest, Crimes Against Nature, and the
correspond to four lines of poetry. It utilizes
the transformation of tools (opportunity) and
musical instruments (inspiration) to depict the
evolution of the Forest Father, from the Spirit
of Christmas to the Emperor America." Whoa!
These startling observations, by the way, are
delivered in a rapid-fire southern accent that
clips off the corners of words so quickly you're
not quite sure what you've just heard.
not just that Ely speaks in incredibly serpentine
(but complete) sentences that seem to mix arcane
theories and mythopoeic imagery, but that it's
all part of some mind-boggling metaphysical
construct. You may not follow everything she
says, but you are aware that a profound and
quirky intelligence is at work here. When you
hear the poem itself, you know you are in the
presence of a visionary artist: "How we
found the Forest Father and he fed us/How the
Mother bared her branches, braved our hammers,
embraced our hatchets/How the Children taught
the pine cones (how their bright eyes charmed
the stars)/How the pine cones burned forever;
how the Children won the war."
ask her how the project began. "Well,"
she says, "I sensed a palpable presence in
the building itself. It just grew from the floorboards,
out of the deteriorated interior, gradually becoming
this persona, the Forest Father. I envisioned
the Forest Father as Jupiter on his throne, dissolving
into the mountainside, the American titan, the
world, the spirit of Christmas."
first attempt at interpreting this vision was
what she calls "back pocket art," a
journal with photographs that she calls Megalomania.
think of myself as a chronicler, a composer,
and a collector," she says. "All of
my activities fall under the category of: use
of the extant. I used the contents of my surroundings—my
neighborhood, my closet, my writing; taking
pictures of myself in front of a billboard,
a store window." And
these images of herself in different costumes with
various props long predate Cindy Sherman's self-portraits.
we walk through the loft, Ely gives a running
commentary on the themes of food and electricity,
and the complex genealogies of objects. Spoons
and brushes, like the Hapsburgs, have dynasties.
As we pass by a contingent of spoons, she tells
me: "The spoons only thrive
in groups. They express themselves in an abundance
of roundness. But eventually the spoons lose
out. The hammers throw in with the brushes and
turn against the spoons. But in the end the
spoons make a comeback."
in a sort of animated, nursery-rhyme world—some
parallel universe where artifacts, instead
of people, are the principal players. Where
the scandal on page six might turn out to be
the dish having run away with the spoon.
has a personality," says Ely, "an
intention. It's the intention of the people
who made them, but also of the flow and evolution
of history as well."
you look closer at the interaction between objects,
they generate bizarre whimsicalities. Astonishing,
inanimate personalities loom out at you: a terracotta
head inside a rusted, industrial light cover
inside a turkey carcass that resembles the knight
errant, Don Quixote—or a muffin pan that
has transformed into a lampshade and a mermaid-shaped
lamp wick that has formed an amorous attachment
to a pair of barber's shears.
is tempting to compare these outlandish juxtapositions
to the exotic cabinets of curiosities assembled
by renaissance princes, in which everything
strange or monstrous in the world—whether
an Egyptian mummy or a unicorn's horn or a saint's
simply put side by side. Nevertheless, however
idiosyncratically Ely has chosen these artifacts,
none of them were collected for their oddity
alone. In fact, they are all common, unaltered
objects found on the street.
the Ely installation is more like a philosophical
system or a fantastic picaresque novel than
the catch-as-catch-can assemblages that now
proliferate in the art world.
place isn't really about things; it's about
she says, and in a sense it is an archaeological
history of the Lower East Side. All those strata
of immigrants—the Irish, the Italians, the
Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans—are remembered
here through the things they threw out onto
the street. In the knob off an old pharmacist's
cabinet or an ornate wrought-iron grill for
making toast over a burner are the stories of
the last ten years the area—once a notorious
drug souk—has slowly been gentrified.
One of the ironies of urban improvement is
that while cleaning up the neighborhood, much
of its character and characters are swept
away, too. Ely bemoans the declining quality
of garbage, now Gateway computer boxes instead
of ancient Royal typewriters. With the real
estate boom, her collection has become increasingly
embattled as landlords seek to evict long-standing
tenants. Or, at least, renovate their apartments.
Just as some landlord once wanted to tear
down the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. Eventually,
the powers-that-be may just have to leave
her loft the way it is—for posterity.
Ely represents a noble strain of maverick American
visionary. She is a connoisseur of strangenesses
and unexpected affinities, a poet of everyday
hieroglyphics that, when arranged in the right
order, can reveal who we are and where we've
been. Not through dour deductive explanations
but allegorically, the way all great art does,
speaking directly to the mind through colliding,
fusing, magical images.
is a kind of Walt Whitman of discarded things
whose collective personalities, cheek by jowl,
spontaneously generate a heroic epic of unexpected
meanings. Only in America.