Drew Conrad: The Desert Is A Good Place To Die
a site-specific installation curated by Mitra Khorasheh
CUAC – Salt Lake City
October 12 – January 13, 2017
In 1970, John Baldessari decided to destroy every painting he had created from 1953 to 1966 through the act of cremation. The resulting ashes were baked into cookies. Almost fifty years later, Drew Conrad decided to follow suit and destroy every piece of artwork he had created from 2010 to the present. His sculptures were not ushered off with great fanfare and burning flames, but rather disassembled and disposed of in a landfill. Reusable items were pilfered for future projects. No cookies were baked.
As an artist, there is an imperative to preserve and archive everything. This became a challenge for Conrad, known for his large-scale architectural assemblages that confess decay, temporality and ruin. “The discarding of my previous body of work was supposed to be a liberating experience, even as my hand was being forced by an impending tide of gentrification”. This willing destruction was to lighten the strain of a backlog of sizable sculptures. Instead, it created a pain and anxiety through the loss, a much heavier creative constraint than the burden of an actual object. “My sculptures that once questioned our understanding of mortality and the fragility of memory are now nothing more than exactly that; a fading recollection. No longer is there a physical body of work that defines my personal being, all that is left are the remaining piles of fragments dismembered from larger dreams. The studio is empty”.
Conrad notes, “A piece of me went missing when six years of creative output was erased form the world, now existing only as a ‘phantom limb’. I have been known to say that the desert is a good place to die. This foreboding thought has existed since the first time I set foot in the arid lands of the Southwest, and traveled across and upward into the Rockies. It is a harsh, rugged, beautiful terrain that beckons me like my own modern day Manifest Destiny, but at times exudes a feeling that death is lingering in the air just beyond the horizon”. It seems fitting that with the demise of Conrad’s previous work, the West would call for his return, metaphorically completing a life cycle from East to West.
Throughout human existence there has been a necessity to build structures to commemorate the dead, to serve as ceremonial shrines, and to act as guiding trail markers. Known by many cultures and names, they are referred to cairns, mazár, tumuli, steles, and ovoos. They are shamanic heaps serving a temple-like purpose; these timeless structures vary in size, delicacy and complexity, from balanced stacks of stones to elaborate wooden sculptures. They are formations of guidance, faith, and reverence, and are still found numerously throughout the backcountry of the Southwest. For his exhibition entitled The Desert Is A Good Place To Die, Conrad will create in situ, an installation that mimics these structures, and more specifically references the visual aesthetic of the Mongolian ovoo and the Uyghur mazár. The sculpture will be constructed from salvaged elements of his previous work; piles of 2 x4s, cinder blocks, sandbags, chandeliers, tattered pennants and dirt that will act as his memorial heap. Conrad embraces gentrification as ritual, a strategy for negotiating and commemorating the trauma associated with loss. The Desert Is A Good Place To Die is a symbolic ceremonial alter to Conrad’s creative past, a burial mound to his missing self, and a direction marker toward a potential path forward. It is time to bury the dead.
Mortality defines the human condition. The experience of loss points us to our precarious nature, and to our vulnerability and dependency—a fundamental tie to others around us. Departing from psychoanalytic models of mourning that treat grief as a private, interior process, Conrad conceptualizes his grief as affect to delineate a communal mode of mourning that requires no prior attachment. Mourning consciously over his recent loss, Conrad’s artistic creation is both a visceral commemoration, catharsis, and transformation. Rich in dialogue with past and memory, the work is a relic to an amassed creative output, inviting viewers to join a collective act of veneration.
Drew Conrad was born in 1979 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He received his BFA from the University of Georgia (2001) and his MFA from Parsons School of Design (2005). He has had solo exhibitions at Kustera Projects, Brooklyn (2016), Fitzroy Gallery, New York (2012) and at Get This Gallery, Atlanta (2013, 2009, 2005). He has additionally participated in numerous group exhibitions which include University Galleries of Illinois State University, The Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts, Pioneer Works, and SPRING/BREAK. He has been the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship (2012), a Vermont Studio Center Fellowship (2014) and a Clocktower Residency at Pioneer Works (2014). Conrad’s art has been featured in such publications as Sculpture Magazine, Art in America, Bad At Sports, Artsy, Time Out NY, and The Creators Project. Drew Conrad lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.