South, dirty

Drew Conrad exhibits filthy works at Get This! Gallery

There’s a complicated technique that Sigmund Freud cooked up a long time ago that we know today as “free association.” You know the dumbed-down version: One person says one word and the other person has to immediately say the word that comes to mind. “Fish” might conjure “fry.” Or it might get weird, like “mother” could conjure “octopus.” After seeing Drew Conrad’s Backwater Blues, an exhibition of sculptures at Get This! Gallery, you might guess that he would respond to “South” with “dirty.” In fact, he might respond to any word with “dirty.”

Backwater Blues is a show of filthy sculptures (and I mean that only as a single entendre, at least for the moment). Dirt is arranged in tight piles at the places where his sculptures touch the ground. The surface of every object here has been encrusted with layers of dirt both thick and thin. There’s clearly some sort of honed technique that he’s used to achieve this texture, but this doesn’t announce itself as painter’s skill. It just looks dirty. Is it possible for one kind of dirt to look dirtier than another? Conrad’s dirt is extra dirty.

A step back from the dirty surfaces, though, reveals the works’ impressive scale. Backwater Blues has three enormous sculptures that Conrad simply and accurately describes as “Dwellings.” In fact, they look like pieces of what you might get if you attached a chain to the side of an abandoned house and pulled it apart with a truck. Lathe board sticks out at every edge; electrical wire leads to fallen chandeliers; the corner of a staircase ends and hangs unfinished in the air. A few other small pieces in the show, titled either “Debris” or “Remnant,” feel more like afterthoughts in comparison to these massive works.

Found objects such as picture frames or a boxing glove that Conrad attaches to the larger works bring to mind that “free association” game. When I saw the boxing glove and punching bag, I thought about someone getting the hell beat of out of them inside this “Dwelling.”

As with the dirt’s artful textures, the evidence of Conrad’s careful shaping is everywhere. Every inch of even the biggest sculptures looks under distress and decay, that we are seeing it right before an inevitable moment of death. It takes a lot of work to make objects look this forgotten. A ram’s head sticks out of one assemblage, which made me think that Rauschenberg might have made things like this if he’d been more interested in Faulkner than advertising.

So, what to make of all this filth? Conrad’s titles don’t try to suggest as much as describe. The one with the ram’s head is titled, “Dwelling No. 7 (Corsican Ram).” It’s tempting to look at the works that literally, as filthy combinations of objects from a home. But the longer you look at the dirty surface and the broken edges, the more likely it is that your mind will start to invent a story about how everything got this broken, how everything got so covered in filth. The mind has a way of associating these things.