Darren Bader: The American Express Holiday Show
November 20, 2021 – January 6, 2022
Last fall I imprudently ran up my company Amex to buy materials for a body of sculpture I wanted to make. So begins Darren Bader’s latest foray into the funny, sexy, sad lives of objects: a compendium of wall-mounted and floor-balanced assemblages—knickknacks, tchotchkes, doo-dads, detritus, debris, and crap—all of which exclaim a certain thingness, plus a sentimental value somewhere between an Etsy-trained AI and at least 10,000 Midwestern monkeys banging out Hamlet. For an artist who rejoices in complicated exhibition conceits, it is a refreshingly straightforward show. He binge-shopped the internet, gathered the materials, rented a studio (his first in 10 years), and began compiling. Or at least, piling.
A partial inventory: fireworks emblazoned with portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin; a log cabin that also happens to be a lamp; a metal pig; a metal cow; the gift bag of a Whole Foods gift card; a T-shirt patterned with Ted Cruz’s head; at least two metal peanuts; a few chairs; a schlocky painting of a woman breastfeeding a seagull; posters featuring Prince, Mick Jagger, and Václav Havel; and Tyler Durden’s Amex (perhaps the clef to this roman: the capitalist skeleton key of an artist known for his alter egos [there was that time at Felix Art Fair when he created a fake gallery and roster of artists]).
But here Bader isn’t pretending, he’s just making sculpture. And for an artist who has previously made sculptures using live cats, a burrito, and, infamously, a pan of lasagna he injected with heroin, that means something. It’s a pleasure to look at, in the way all good readymades are. One admires the small beauty of letterhead, in this case Margaret Mead’s, or a tea invitation (former first lady Hillary Clinton). Whatever these objects are, whatever lives they led which brought them to eBay and then to an Orchard Street gallery, here they’re presented as a formal democracy, where collector’s items prop up kitsch, and the sheer absurdity of selection, the breadth of influence, overwhelms the rational brain and the eye is left to focus on rhythms between materials, textural rhymes, and interplays of color and form.
Linguistically—Bader is primarily concerned with language; in his bio, he refers to himself as an “aging sculpture/literature brand”—what holds these objects together is an animating force that runs throughout his practice: estrangement through isolation and juxtaposition. When confronted, each assemblage—a scrambled word search of materials—offers up a partial haiku. The narratives do not resolve because they never truly begin; but still something stirs, and threatens to cohere into meaning.
As to how things actually come together, no adhesives or fasteners are used in creating the works (except for nails used to hang frames on the walls). The pieces are held together by the gravitational force of their own weight. They are, of course, objects existing in the world. Like Black Friday packages and white elephant presents, they add to the global pile of ocean-bound plastic and ozone layer–bound carbon.
And while it’s a moot point by now, assemblages still call into question the conditions of an artwork, or art viewing, or the art market, or whatever. Bader is well aware of this, hence the preponderance of frames (for displaying) and chairs (for thoughtful reflecting) throughout the show. There’s also the artwork of others—not just the aforementioned seagull lactation painting, but images from Elmgreen & Dragset and Uri Aran. Perhaps the most pointed engagement with the art market is the show’s pricing scheme, in which the pieces, broken down into sculptural components, are valued on two tiers. If Bader purchased a component using his company American Express, it’s going to run you 1,400 dollars. If he didn’t, and say, found it on the sidewalk in Carroll Gardens, it’s free.
Put another way, each work is an objet d’art and free pile—wanted and unwanted. And here is the emotional freight of the show. Discussions of the Anthropocene and Amazon’s labor practices aside, these objects, cast out from their original context, have found … well, not meaning, but new relationships. There might not be second acts in American lives; we’ve got some great second-hand stores. Call it regifting.