Jim Condron: Texts and Textures

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Jim Condron installing Close to You, Karen Condron’s clothes, straw, yarrow, 50 x 30 x 30 inches at Wings over Wall Street, Chelsea, NY, 2019

In his sculptures and installations Jim Condron merges found objects—fragmented or whole—to create colorful and textural hybrid entities with distinct yet very open-ended textual undercurrents. Bed frames and tractors, furs and fabric, painted pieces of wood and plastic refuse, assert their past function and hint at potential narratives in playful variations, revealing the artist’s hand and his vivid imagination along the way.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to that painting/sculpture intersection?

I grew up in Long Island and Connecticut and studied Art and English at Colby College. Upon graduation from Colby, I worked as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in New York for three years. During my time at Morgan, I took classes at several New York art schools and ended up at the New York Studio School. I began with evening classes with Bruce Gagnier and eventually quit my day job and matriculated full-time at the Studio School, studying with Graham Nickson, Mercedes Matter and Rosemary Beck, among other great artists. After three years there, I moved to Baltimore. I received my MFA at the Maryland Institute’s Hoffberger School of Painting, studying with Grace Hartigan.

I came to the intersection of painting and sculpture after I rather suddenly felt I had nothing new to say with straight painting. I quit for a short time, thinking it might be for good. That anxiety of possibly not making art was difficult but it made me think hard about what it was about painting that I still liked if anything. Slowly I began collecting bits of bark and wood from the yard and “buttering” them with thick impasto paint. I discovered that I still loved paint.

In your interview with Andrew L. Shea at New Criterion you say that you have little formal training in sculpture and that some of your sculptor friends see your work as paintings compressed into two-dimensional images. You also mention that collecting materials has given you content, the histories of the material. Let’s take a closer look at Somewhere between Lincoln’s birthday and the Chinese New Year. Tell me about the history of the materials, your approach to color in that piece, the genesis of this work, the title?

When I started to shift from painting to sculpture, I thought of the works as a two-sided relief. I also think about and make the work from a variety of angles and viewpoints.

My interest in collecting materials with specific content has grown and developed over time. Initially, I was collecting small pieces of wood and natural debris in the backyard; things like wood chips or remnants from chopped wood and bamboo. Painting on these things felt exciting and strange and it broke my ideas of what a support for painting needed to be. Prior to painting on found bits of natural material, I occasionally mounted my paintings on silk or framed them in repurposed and remnant animal fur to experiment with presentation. Working with the fur frames led to my friendship with Debbie and Richard Swartz who run the oldest furrier in the US. They are generous in continuing to give me fur remnants that I frequently use in my sculptural pieces.

Somewhere between Lincoln’s birthday and the Chinese New Year is an early sculptural work that is a conglomeration of several smaller pieces, a bricollage. Most of my sculptural works develop slowly over time, sometimes over years. I tend to make small units that are then gradually joined. Somewhere between Lincoln’s birthday and the Chinese New Year was one of the first pieces made this way. The breakthrough moment for me in this piece was the stretching of the raw linen over a biomorphic shape. You can also see the found bits of wood and bark and the fur scrap. I think of this piece as an abstract, gestural painting, where the strokes and textures of paint are being suggested or represented by the actual textures of the objects.

This piece also marks the time I began to use excerpts from great works of literature and sometimes bits of my own conversations as titles. Prior to this, if I titled a work, the title was descriptive of the subject of the piece. I now keep a running list of titles. When a work is completed, I add it to the piece as if it were a physical element. I do not use the title to define the work but to open up many possible meanings. This new approach to titling was odd and funny to me at first. Much of what I was doing at this stage in my practice was motivated by a desire to say “fuck it” to the seriousness of painting. I wanted to have fun.

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Condron, Somewhere between Lincoln’s birthday and the Chinese New Year, 2016, oil, wood, plastic, fur, linen, 12 x 5 x 4 inches

The description of your 2017 exhibition Picking Up Pieces at Julio Fine Arts Gallery at Loyola University, puts your work in context of Dada. Dada was a “let’s break the rules” response to the absurdity of WWI, a provocative political commentary. Where do you see your work in that context?

The critic and writer, Ann Landi made the Dada reference to my work in the Loyola University exhibition. It is difficult to think of my work within the political climate of that time. My work certainly has always had some qualities of the absurd. I value the humor and meaning that arises from nonsensical, irrational connections. I suppose if Dada is thought of as a reaction to World trauma, then today we are in now in a similar state of anxiety. War is not a pandemic, but both events make one question one’s role or purpose in the world. One response to extreme and life threatening conditions is concluding that life is simply absurd. I have always felt that art reflects this state of senselessness.

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Installation view of Picking Up the Pieces, Loyola University, Baltimore, MD, 2017

Your 2018 exhibition at Goucher College examined the application of the economic principle of the law of diminishing returns to painting and art making in the 21st century. Scale seems to be at the core of your premise. How did that premise evolve and what can you tell me about the work in that show?

When I began making work for the exhibition at Silber Gallery at Goucher College I had no concept for the show. At the time, I was making oil paintings using the same proportion, but incrementally decreasing the size. I started large and gradually got smaller. Each painting had a limited palette, usually with three colors and white. That was it. There was no greater idea. The concept came from a discussion of, among other things, the salability of a smaller painting versus a larger painting, which sparked the idea of examining the application of the economic principle of the law of diminishing returns to painting and art making. The economic theory, diminishing returns, asserts that additions to the production process of a good or product will, eventually, lead to lower returns on that product. The related principle of diminishing marginal utility deals with the satisfaction or “subjective value” one derives from the addition of a unit. Diminishing returns generally deals with the efficiency of making a product and diminishing marginal utility deals with the pleasure that a product generates. They are both complicated principles and can be applied to the making of art and to the art market.

Diminishing returns has its origin in agricultural labor and production. Keeping in mind that all-purpose variety tractors for small farms greatly reduced the need for animals and hired hands, making farming more efficient–I used a beautiful 1938, General GG, partial tractor as the centerpiece for the exhibition. I bought it from a seasoned dealer steeped in knowledge of vintage tractors and parts. Danny Yingling owns a two-acre field filled with old tractors in Gettysburg, PA. Small farms have been declining for generations due to climate change, falling commodity prices related to globalization, corporate farming, and political polarization. The aim of my work is to preserve such objects of history as works of art. A tractor is not considered ephemeral, but it is. The historic and transient objects that I work with enter a different market altogether once they are works of art. Of course, I am using these objects in a formal way as I compose a piece.

For the exhibition, I also made several other sculptures from vintage tractor parts and plows. The sculptures referenced quintessential American agriculture of the past. Willa Cather’s My Antonia was the source for the titles, which instantly conjured a simultaneous feeling of history and timelessness.

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Installation view of It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee, vintage General GG tractor, fur, paper, acrylic, oil, 72 x 120 x 54 inches, Goucher College, Baltimore, MD, 2018

In your installation You never wash it off completely, at the Wilson College’s Cooley Gallery you present assemblage constructions and sculptures. Each work in the show is engaged with the history of Wilson College, each titled with a textual fragment from literature. One of them is a selection of bedframes for example. How did you select these objects? How did you match the titles? And how did you interconnect all of these into a cohesive narrative?

2018 was Wilson College’s sesquicentennial and I wanted to make pieces that celebrated the rich history of the school. I have taught in Wilson’s MFA program for five years and have spent a good deal of time on campus learning about the College’s fascinating history. The property on which the College was founded was originally owned by Alexander McClure, whose home Norland, was burnt in 1864 by Confederates during the Civil War. Wilson was originally an all-women’s college before somewhat reluctantly becoming coeducational in 2013. There is a fairly extensive archive and a great openness on the part of the students, faculty and staff, especially the head archivist, Amy Ensley, who gave me full access to the College’s holdings. There were three main sculptures in the show.

The bed frames used in one piece ranged in age from contemporary dorm room beds to an early 1800’s colonial bed frame that belonged to Sarah Wilson, one of the founders of the College. Another piece was a working fountain made from a vintage canoe. Water in the canoe was pumped up through steel rods topped by vintage bowling pins. The rods gradually rusted and the bowling pins split over the duration of the exhibition. The fountain was installed in the College’s library, 100 feet from the river where the canoe once carried students. A third piece was a 6×10 foot quilt of early Wilson College school uniforms, banners, and blazers from the college’s early years. The title of the show You Never Wash if Off Completely is taken from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The reference in the book literally refers to the smell of kerosene used to burn books. The title calls to mind the burning of the College’s foundational building and the surrounding city of Chambersburg.

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Installation view ofYou Never Wash it Off Completely,vintage canoe, vintage bowling pins, steel, pump, 96 x 204 x 36 inches at Wilson College, Chambersburg, PA, 2019
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Vintage photograph of students canoeing at Wilson College, circa 1920

Tell me about the 10 installations you displayed at the annual WOWS event to honor the memory of your mother.

My Mother, Karen Condron died in 2018 after a nearly eight-year struggle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). She raised six children, was an obsessive runner, and an amateur watercolorist. She was also an entrepreneur, running a promotional goods company for nearly thirty years, at a time when there were few women-owned businesses in Fairfield County, Connecticut. After her diagnosis, my Mother was also a supporter of an annual benefit event for the research and elimination of ALS called Wings Over Wall Street. She won their Spirit Award in 2015. In 2019, I made an installation in the lobby of the Frank Gehry designed ICA building in Chelsea of ten sculptural works using my Mother’s clothing, purses and shoes, and objects from my childhood including a crib, bicycle, and lawn chaise lounge chairs. I combined these objects with my Mother’s clothing, shoes, accessories, mannequin parts and natural materials like straw and yarrow. Each piece dealt with and eulogized a particular aspect of my mother’s life and my memories of her. My Mom was incredibly energetic and creative in ways I am only now beginning to understand. Making the works from her personal belongings allowed me to reflect on and appreciate her accomplishments and the elements of her character I didn’t fully grasp when I was younger.

Some of the works I made for that exhibition were the largest and least manipulated that I had ever created. One piece, made with two suspended 1970s lawn lounge chairs was such a simple idea, but expressed a powerful remembered image of my mom. I allowed myself to work this minimally. Much of the work in the show, including the lounge chair piece, felt very figurative, which was new for me. I am increasingly interested in the feelings ignited by personal belongings and the expression these objects radiate when incorporated into a sculpture.

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Installation view of Close to Me, Wings over Wall Street, Chelsea, NY, 2019

Your work ranges from painting / wall assemblages to free standing pieces. How do you approach each form?

My work, regardless of medium, nearly always begins with a color, texture or compositional impulse. And I always impose some sort of limitation on the making. For example, I might give myself a time limit for a session, or I might only let myself only use thin, transparent paint. These limitations force a kind of concentration that allows my mind to become quiet. I don’t generally like to work from ideas, and I do not want to know what the work is about until it is finished. There actually is an active working to not know what a work might be about. The WOW show was extremely difficult for me as many of the objects I used were already so loaded with personal content. If that content was too much in the forefront of my mind as I was working, the pieces took on too much sadness. I didn’t want this, rather I want my work to always be open.

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Condron, Follow You Around, 2021, oil, wool, wood, steel, plaster, 30 x 22 x 20 inches

What are you working on now?

I am a routine oriented person, and at the same time I like new material and conceptual challenges. I make daily drawings of a rural landscape from the second story window of my old house and am continuing to paint. I am now in the planning stages of a show at Hood College. And, I have a new, exciting sculptural project in the making that involves portraiture.

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Condron, Here was peace and air conditioning, 2021, oil, paper, plastic, 5 x 4 x 4 inches
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Condron, The enviable style of the youth is little protection against catastrophe, 2021, oil, spray paint, wood, vintage model train track, glass, mortar, 7 x16 x 5 inches

Originally from Long Island, NY, Jim Condron earned his MFA at the Hoffberger School of Painting of the Maryland Institute College of Art, and a BA in Art History and English from Colby College. He also studied at the New York Studio School.  Condron is a recipient of a Pollock Krasner Foundation grant, an Adolf and Esther Gottlieb Foundation grant.  He is an Edward F. Albee Foundation fellow and has been awarded a number of other residencies.  

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com