Herndon Ely
The poetry of tin-can bracelets and mismatched gloves
By David Dalton

From Gadfly March/April 2000


Let us suppose the idea of art can be expanded to embrace the whole range of man-made things, including all tools and writing in addition to the useless, beautiful and poetic things of the world. But this view of the universe of man-made things simply coincides with the history of art.
—George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things

For 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.

America 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 Americana—the 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.

"Other countries are either too tidy or too impoverished for trash to linger on their streets," says Ely.

At first, one is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of, uh, stuff—spilling off shelves, piled on tables, every surface teaming higgledy-piggledy with objects. But what initially might seem like a scavenger's midden heap of random junk is actually a very carefully thought out series of themes—an epic poem, in fact, written with things—called Alice in Wonderland.

Herndon 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.

"Alice in Wonderland is in four sections," she tells me. "The birth of Alice, the House in the Forest, Crimes Against Nature, and the Garden—which 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.

It's 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."

I 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."

Her first attempt at interpreting this vision was what she calls "back pocket art," a journal with photographs that she calls Megalomania.

"I 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.

As 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."

We're 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.

"Everything 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."

As 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.

It 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 toenail—is 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.

Collectively, 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.

"This place isn't really about things; it's about time," 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 long-vanished lives.

In 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.

Herndon 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.

She 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.