nari ward’s ephemera and black american lives

May 7, 2019

Being based in Harlem for over a quarter-century has deeply embedded an ephemeral and site-specific sense of place in the work of Jamaica-born artist Nari Ward. Known as a pioneer of immersive sculptural environments during their emergence in the 1990s, Ward has maintained a steady presence in the lexicon of contemporary artists who continually evolve their practices into new territory. In 21st century parlance, he could be considered a visionary of the up-cycle movement.

Nari Ward, “Apollo/Poll” (2017). Steel, wood, vinyl, and LED lights, 360 x 144 x 48 in (914.4 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm). Commissioned by Socrates Sculpture Park, New York. (Courtesy the artist; Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul; and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins, and Havana) (Photo: Nicholas Knight)

In a walk-through of Nari Ward: We the People, an exhibit currently up at New York City’s New Museum, the graciousness and care that Ward grants to the building blocks of his sculptures — everyday materials  that have been discarded, found and repurposed — is stunningly monumentalized. The mid-career survey of his work includes epic installations reconstructed within the space of the museum. In a larger context, a striking visual experience is underpinned by a lingering cognitive dissonance between an art market flush with inflated prices, and the profound potential of making something out of nothing — for free.

Nari Ward, “T.P. Reign Bow” (2012). Wood, blue tarp, brass grommets, zippers, human hair, and taxidermy fox, 224 x 156 x 270 in (569 x 396.2 x 685.8 cm). Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein

According to New Museum curatorial assistant, Francesca Altamura, “[Ward] took sculpture and materiality very seriously. [It was] an attempt to infuse something viewed as useless with purpose. To turn it into something we want to protect and care for through his intensive labor.” Ward’s intent as an artist helped expand the language of sculpture, and offer the “environment” as a site of inquiry in opposition to a conceptual approach.

Nari Ward, “Amazing Grace (1993). Approx. 300 baby strollers and fire hoses, dimensions variable. Installation view: “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,” New Museum, New York, 2013. (Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.) (Photo: Jesse Untracht-Oakner)

In one emotionally profound and compositionally exquisite immersive installation, Amazing Grace, a dimly lit room houses over 100 strollers lined up side-by-side in the shape of an oval. Two paths made out of fire hoses dissect the work, echoing the oval shape. Originally installed in 1993 at an abandoned firehouse, the well-worn, dingy and eclectic group of strollers invokes an expansive, hovering presence of children, adults, family members, streets, and their reverberating textures.

Nari Ward, “Homeland Sweet Homeland” (2012). Cloth, plastic, megaphones, razor wire, feathers, chains, and silver spoons, 96 x 59 3/4 x 10 in (243.8 x 151.8 x 25.4 cm). In collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Collection Pérez Art Museum Miami; museum purchase with funds provided by Jorge M. Pérez, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and the PAMM Ambassadors for African American Art. (Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul.) (Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein)

While equally thoughtful video, photographs and small objects are interspersed amongst the larger works, it is within the immersive environments and sculptural artifacts that Ward’s transference of life force energy is most tangible.The eloquent, compassionate use of rich, lived-through ideas and experiences, organized with the formal language of art, are reworked through countless materials: baseball bats, shopping carts, fire hoses, portable gas containers, plastic shopping bags, oven trays, soda bottles and more. Ultimately, the work of Nari Ward has a heartbeat. It resonates with a deep appreciation of humanity that is contagious, offering a refreshing reminder of what art can do and be.

Nari Ward, “We the People” (2011). Shoelaces, 96 x 324 in (243.8 × 594.4 cm). In collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. Collection Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; Gift of the Speed Contemporary, 2016.1. © The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY

Nari Ward: We the People is on view at New York’s New Museum through May 26th.