Jody Isaacson | Essays

Jody Isaacson at Greg Kucera

My initial encounter with Jody Isaacson's installation at Greg Kucera, Los Nichos: The Art of Losing isn't Hard to Master, came in the form of a modestly sized digital reproduction via the gallery's website: the piece's idiosyncratic physicality—an exhilarating ménage of the minimal, the intimate, the monumental, and the baroque—confined to a thousand pixels from side-to-side and reduced to two dimensions. Seeing it for the first time this way was somewhat akin to watching an opera on YouTube with the video's sound set to MUTE, even if the reproduction's missing dimension was among the least of its omissions. But whatever its limitations, that image conveyed enough to lure me to the gallery, and I'm not drawn out of my hovel easily.

The piece's web-based incarnation did little to prepare me for the experience of standing in front of the installation itself, but this had almost nothing do with the truncated scope of its digital facsimile and everything to do with the raw power and pathos and Spartan elegance of the real thing.

Large sack-like forms, vaguely teardrop in shape—elongated and bulbous at the lower end, as if sagging under their own weight or acquiescing to gravity's pull—hang by “wicks” from the ceiling, hovering above the floor—three to five feet from the ground. The forms are made of candle wax; white, with the texture and muted luster of hardened butter. Manila tags with paper eyelets—the kind morgues use to identify their dead—are attached to the wicks and tied in place with string. Each tag includes the name of someone the artist has known and lost. They also include a date of death. Most, but not all, show a date of birth as well, along with the age of the decedent at the time of his or her death. Names and dates are hand-written. A few of the tags have mementos attached to them: an antique watch, a ceramic brooch in the form of a fried egg, a cremation tag, a wax seal—stamped with a signet ring.

The gallery's press release refers to these forms as pendulums. They hang like pendulums, but do not move; they don't keep time at all. They only mark time—time that has come and gone—birth and death explicitly, the intervening years obliquely through the ritual of their production: the wicks dipped in melted wax, once for each year of the life the emerging pendulum pays homage to; the wax allowed to cool and harden in between submersions. This process appears to be idiosyncratic in other ways, because the rate the pendulums scale at doesn't appear to correspond in a predictable way to the number of times they're dipped, leaving some of them larger than the math of the ritual would make them out to be, relative to the others, and some smaller. Or so it seemed.

At one end of the room, commanding it like an altar and consecrating the space around it, a pine storage cabinet lined with cubbyholes—open at both the front and back: a grid that spans the length of the unit and extends from top to bottom. Many of the cubbyholes contain the same sack-like forms that hang from the ceiling—bulbous ends forward, wicks bundled at the back, tagged with names and dates, just like the others. Two of the cubbies contained wicks, but these wicks had not been dipped in wax, or if they had, the wax buildup was insufficient to form the beginnings of a pendulum. The tags attached to them included just one date. Some of the cubbies are empty—spaces that have been set aside but not yet filled with the emblems of lives lived and lost—celebratory and elegiac both—that populate the others, or hang in front of the cabinet like a veil of congealed tears.

The pendulums can also be read as vessels, which is how I saw them at first. But I don't think of them as urns, or anything akin to urns; there is nothing separating the shell that holds their contents from the contents they contain. They're more like talismans, except they're not imbued with magic (aside from the memories they evoke in those who either knew the individuals they represent, or project their own histories against the white wax silhouettes), only specters—identities that cannot hold their shape in death.

The hanging pendulums are arranged in clusters, and the composite arrangement is positioned asymmetrically—relative to the cabinet—as if the space allotted for them became insufficient as the number of pendulums grew, and at some point, the placement of additional pendulums had to be improvised. While this may have been driven by the gallery‚Äôs architecture and the constraints of the space more than anything else, it echoes the struggle to impose a semblance of order on something that is inherently unwieldy and disorderly and entropic, the struggle that seems to lie at the heart of the work.

The artist mourns. She also celebrates, and there is nothing maudlin about the solemnity that permeates the space or its memento mori, even if mourning is the more pervasive impulse. Her sense of loss—the personal side of it—is not the driver here, not to my eye. It's the ontological loss: the lives she honors—in and of themselves, the agents of visions and dreams and possibilities that disappeared when they disappeared, leaving their identities in death as the exclusive domain of someone else's fragmented and desultory memory, a guardianship that will prove to be as transitory as the memories they have been charged by fate or their own inner necessity to carry. Sooner or later, the guardians get confused, or their recollections fade, or undergo revision when something in their universe changes and throws their memories out of alignment, placing them at odds with the new order of things. And eventually, they too will die. For all of the installation's beauty—and, to be sure, what Isaacson has done here is visually stunning—it's the verbal, not the visual that ultimately defines the piece. Words (and more specifically, names). And numbers—the dates that mark a beginning and an end. But mostly words (the numbers frame the words). The names of people the artist has lost: family, friends, colleagues, mentors, others who have touched or otherwise influenced her. The artist recites these names, nearly two hundred and fifty in all—a recording carried over a diminutive speaker discretely mounted above an open doorway at the back of the room. She embellishes the recital with comments, interspersed among the names—an anecdote here, an observational aside there, the interview with David Byrd. The volume is low, and at first, I thought what I was hearing was a conversation—among gallery-goers or staff—percolating in an adjacent room: her voice and the ambient noise, others in the gallery, the din of the street—crisp and immediate because it was warm outside and the gallery doors—front and back—were open. And amid the cacophony, I couldn't parse the words until something caught my ear and I recognized what I had heard and at that point strained to hear more, and even then clarity was an intermittent thing.

Like so many of the installation's details, this muted voice, drifting in and out of audibility as it collides with the other sounds wafting through the room, is incisively symbolic. It captures something of the texture of remembering, its vicissitudes, its contingencies, its fugitivity, the sometimes Sisyphean and heroic scope of the act itself: the means—robust and problematic—through which we invest loss with meaning.

—David McMurray