One of the few excitements of winter in Chicago is tracing twisting lines on the hoods of cars during the first snowfall. Thicker than the stroke of an individual finger but thinner than a banister railing, J. Michael Ford’s five conduit sculptures mimic this playful off-handed logic. This series of works at Andrew Rafacz rear gallery are highly finished and without the trace of their making processes. The labor involved is poeticized in part by the accompanying press release:
“These little human touches are so like labor. It’s hard work and really sweaty to bend that pipe: there is no lackadaisical work. I heard you can’t bend them back to straight, ever, because human perfection is limited and repeat stress snaps joints and the human will.”
Though the pipes are presumably hollow, their interiors cannot be seen as they are sealed at the ends with either smooth or sharp points. The color of the pipes flawless semi-gloss surface situates itself snugly in a well-known digital realm of tidy pastel photographs, smooth Judd sculptures, and weightless Macintosh products. These are photogenic bodies, both sensual and shy they mask their attempt to charm us.
Ford’s sculptures riff on a “cabinet of curiosities” model, following a two-part system of making which today is commonplace. The artist erects a structure that takes up space like furniture (the cabinet) and engages the both the architecture of the room and the viewer’s body. This platform holds smaller objects presented for examination (the curiosities). Ford’s work Real Love consists of these two parts; the conduit pipe stands alone as a vertical structure that beckons the viewer inward to inspect its object, a pendant on a gold chain. As is the case with Ford’s work, these small objects often carry a cultural and emotional weight which counterbalances the physical and visual weight of the larger pedestal that frames them. Ford eliminates any right angles and reduces his structure to a single line in space. Though the curvy pipe forms have a fleeting bodily quality, their most fundamental function is to mark space and to highlight their curious objects. The dynamic combination of the spacious metal structures with the miniature objects facilitates both distant and intimate viewing experiences.
Ford’s method of making also translates well to photographs. While physically in the gallery, the viewer actively navigates the works becoming aware of their limbs; in photographs, the sculptures shift effortlessly to a two-dimensional plane and at both scales, distant and intimate, the work becomes a series of flat icons floating against a white backdrop. The works photogenic quality suggests the artists consideration of the large audience that will only experience the work online. The relationship between objects and the internet in contemporary practice is called to mind. How does an object maker think about form and space knowing their work will be viewed as flat backlit photographs? Through photographs, the sculptures can be quickly digested by a collector or curator. There is nothing left hidden, there is no confusion or excess.
The four small tokens adorning the poles at various heights present themselves like little gifts: a silver chain with a diamond cross drapes about our earlobes; a bellybutton ring rests level with the viewer’s navel; a heart shaped pendant with a photo of a young Michael Jackson hangs low so we kneel for a closer look. These three tokens have an intimate relationship with skin: a necklace articulates the shape of one’s clavicles; a piercing draws our attention to the depth of a navel, and a pendant lays on the wrist where a doctor might measure your heartbeat with the second hand of their watch. The final token, a sleek black and gold dart, breaks this logic abruptly. It is the largest of all four and the only one which does not decorate the body or touch its pipe counterpart. Though darts are fiddled with much like a cross, ring or pendant, the game of throwing introduces an attempt and challenge found nowhere else in the exhibition. Stuck above where it’s absent board would rest, it has missed its target. The title of this sculpture, At first sight, highlights the social relationship between the implied players drawing a connection between the thump of the dart piercing the wall and the way one must feel the impact of “love at first sight.”
All four curious objects are iconic and presented with equal value. Though these objects contain their own cultural histories and political burdens, this content is not emphasized or explored with depth. The cross, the most charged and pervasive symbol in the room, plays the same role as the belly button ring alluding to intimacy and interpersonal connections. The titles of the works – Cry baby, At first sight, Do no wrong, Real love, and Yours and mine – also point in this direction, privileging the implied relationship between the people which revolve around them. Real love includes the Michael Jackson charm that is used for its immediately recognizable sentimentality. Along with the titles, the charm situates the show in a hazy place in contemporary youth culture where sincerity and irony, nostalgia and narcissism become tangled and undifferentiated. Perhaps it is a similarly hazy space that exists between his relationships that Ford aims to capture with his practice. Nevertheless, the works the seem unconcerned with fully articulating the sensations of desire and melancholy that they conjure up, instead, the sculptures lightly extend a hand, beckoning the viewer inward to indulge in their tableaus of unverbalized intimacy.