Jim Condron’s newest show, “You Never Wash It Off Completely,” was commissioned by Wilson College as part of its sesquicentennial celebration and will run until December 15th at the Sue Davidson Cooley Gallery. For the show, Condron created three large, site-specific installations. No gasp at a miracle that is truly miraculous because the magic lies in the fact that you know it was there for you all along—Condron’s titles are all cribbed from works of literary fiction—is a quilt composed of archived materials ranging from school blazers to spray painted banners saved after student protests in 2013: the year the school decided to go from being a women’s college to a co-ed college. We can’t answer the questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here now, is the centerpiece for the exhibit. We can’t answer the questions… is a sculpture made of bedframes which has spare steel and wooden frames taken from Wilson’s dorm storage as its central structural element with the bed of Sarah Wilson, the school’s benefactor and namesake, and the bed of Alexander McClure, on whose 94 acre estate the school now sits, creating the sides and framing the piece. Two floors below the gallery in the library’s common area is the installation which shares its name with the show, You never wash it off completely, an aluminum rowboat set on railroad ties with steel posts topped by bowling pins. Also included in the gallery in grey vitrines are smaller sculptures made by Condron during his time teaching for the summer intensive sessions of Wilson’s MFA program. While his installations draw out Wilson’s layered history, the history of Wilson also draws out layers in his works.
Wilson College is a small, liberal arts school in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The borough is best known for being burned down by Confederate forces after failing to raise a half-million dollar ransom in 1864. Alexander McClure, who edited multiple anti-slavery newspapers and was a prominent Republican in frequent correspondence with Lincoln, was singled out during the raid, and Confederate troops rode a mile from the town square to ensure his house (Norland, a version of “Northland”) was burned to the ground. Norland was rebuilt, but due to post-war inflation and mounting debts, McClure sold the mansion in 1867. It would become the first home of Wilson College and today serves as the school’s admissions office. As a nod to the town and campus history, the college’s mascot is a phoenix.
Condron’s installation You never wash it off completely is most explicitly in dialogue with this history. You never wash it off completely was sourced from a canoe found in a storage area below the school’s gymnasium (students are no longer allowed to take boats out on the creek behind the school). The canoe rests on two railroad ties and, sitting maybe two feet from the boat, are two more which are there to act as remnants of the railroad that used to bisect campus. The rowboat is filled with water and aquarium pumps push water through the center of the steel posts to the tops where it then flows down the steel, creating a moss of orange rust. Since the fountain is self-contained, the constantly circulating water mimics the cyclical nature of the phoenix. Further, the bowling pins forming capitals to the steel posts are meant as a nod to the university’s vintage two-lane bowling alley but also draw out connotations of the circulatory nature of the game.
Bowling pins are not unique to this installation. They are a figure that’s emerged in Condron’s work following his shift from painting to plastic arts. Bowling pins appear as part of sculptures in Condron’s other show running now, “Trash Talk,” at the Delaware Contemporary, as well as in his smaller pieces for this show. Bowling pins provide a reference point for understanding Condron’s work. Their shape can be seen as a lopsided sign of infinity. This trope reifies what Condron is doing with his sculpture. His work is a mixture of deconstructed and reassembled found materials with unique additions of Condron’s own, including thick swaths of paint, plaster, spray insulation, and cement (amongst other things). In Condron’s work, discarded objects return, but with these returns, there is a difference.
Condron’s installations for the show provide us a frame for seeing this. For example, in No gasp at a miracle… the archival materials are sewn together in seemingly haphazard fashion. While the original objects are still clearly discernable, the tapestry itself becomes more of a painting as the objects, removed from their contexts, become significant not as individual, self-actualized things, but rather for the ways their textures and colors contribute to the painterly nature of the quilt. Yet, the objects still retain a disparateness which works against reading the installation solely as quilt or painting. However, in their return, these object no longer signify the same things. In one section of the quilt, a class banner from 1960 is inverted to read as 0961. A t-shirt with a monotone screen print of Sarah Wilson’s face, made from an oil painting still hanging in the college’s cafeteria, anchors the top right corner of the banner. The original archive tag is still attached to the shirt, a repurposed Rolodex card. Occasionally these repetitions are implicit and unknowable to the viewer. For example, in We can’t answer the questions… some of the bedframes used were sourced from Wilson College’s Fulton Farm, a functional teaching farm on the college campus. The frames were used to dry onions, and if the viewer looks closely, pieces of onionskin and soil are still stuck to them. While the casual observer would not think to look for this, all of the beds have some form of wear belying their history of use, possibly contributing to the “aura” in the title of the work.
Conversely, Wilson provides a unique frame for Condron’s work as well. The college’s history is itself a frame upon which a number of repetitions are hung. Condron’s work is displayed in an addition to the John Stewart Memorial Library, constructed to replace another addition, built in 1966 but demolished in 2013, due in part to failing steam pipes and in part to accommodate the different ways Millennial and Gen Z students use the library. 2013 was also the year Wilson College elected to move from being a women’s college to a co-educational institution. This was done in order to ensure the survival of the college as enrollment had stagnated in the 500s (some of the materials for No gasp at a miracle… include student protest banners with sayings like “Better dead than co-ed”). The gamble worked. Enrollment has more than doubled in the five years following the decision and continues to rise significantly each year. Wilson is, for the first time in a long time, at capacity, with every bed taken. This “return” has also created difference. Though a traditionally liberal arts institution, our Veterinary Medical Technician and Nursing programs are the two most populated courses of study. Men’s sports have become a strong recruiting tool—the addition of a men’s baseball team last year brought in 40 students. This history of returning with a difference makes for an interesting background for Condron’s work.
Condron’s sculptures show this difference in a kind distortion or signal loss inherent in the return of objects. On the surface, my days were the same as ever uses a pink lawn flamingo for its base. The body has been inverted and neck cropped before the head was reattached. The result is something duck like, with the beak seemingly vomiting concrete into the funnel of what was the base of its neck. Its bright bill now obscured, the flamingo’s expression rests somewhere between embarrassed and terrified. The drips and streaks made by the wet concrete are left on the sculpture, giving it a provisional feel. To the viewer, the piece looks to be in process, as if under the vitrine, the concrete were still wet. This fluidity comes both from the choice of materials and how they are applied. In another sculpture (one in a series of four titled I mean you have been disappointed in love, but don’t you know how many things there are to be disappointed in besides love, a yellow bowling pin is tumorous with spray foam insulation. Poured paint streaks down the piece with a gravy-like viscosity and the torn edges crayon wrappers contrast the smooth textures while also giving the sculpture a subtle peach fuzz in places. In another, an inverted bowling pin set into a Solo cup base is obscured almost entirely by fur remnants. All of this indicates a loss of integrity. In each repetition, boundaries destabilize, becoming porous.
This fluidity places them at an ambiguous point of either becoming fully “made” or falling apart completely. In Like the sudden pang of an old scar and I was outside the subject, almost always, whatever the subject was, two sculptures in one of the vitrines, the pieces seem (or quite possibly are) barely being held together. In Like the sudden pang of an old scar, beer-can sized cylinders of cement with a birch-like texture lean on each other, bound into one object with a single string. In I Was Outside the subject…, a brick remnant, a large mass of yarn, and rounded balls of Sculpey (painted like movie-theatre candy) are wrapped together by a handful yarn strands difficult to discern from the rest of the yarn mass which has gathered in flaccid loops. In Condron’s art, the objects of our world are both permanent and provisional, continuing eternally, being made and remade.
Wilson’s Cooley Gallery is open Monday through Thursday 8am—11pm, Friday 8am—5pm, Saturday 9am—5pm, and Sunday 1pm—11pm. Admission is free. For additional information or an appointment, contact Joshua Legg, Cooley Gallery Curator, at [email protected].
–Matt McBride is an instructor at Wilson College where he teaches in the English Department and in the interdisciplinary MFA program. He holds a BFA in poetry from Bowling Green State University and a PhD in English & Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati. His first book of poems, City of Incandescent Light, was released last May by Black Lawrence Press.