A look at Brandeis Fine Arts professor Joe Wardwell’s piece in the MASS MoCA

November 17, 2017

“How much can a piece hold before it bursts apart?” Joe Wardwell asks, standing in front of his massive work of art. Wardwell’s piece, “Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States,” now on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), was specifically commissioned for its 100-foot-plus space. Last week, the Brandeis Fine Arts department hosted a special trip to the museum, specifically highlighting the professor’s sizeable work.

MASS MoCA is big. Located in North Adams, a small, deindustrialized town in the Berkshires, the MoCA is an impressive draw for tourists in “Art Country.” A former industrial site turned art complex, it’s the largest museum dedicated to contemporary art in the United States, boasting 250,000 square feet of space. Because of its size, the museum can feel overwhelming, which was why getting to concentrate on one specific piece (Wardwell’s “Hello America”) helped focus the outing.

Partly inspired by J.G. Ballard’s 1981 novel “Hello America,” Wardwell’s large work is visually daunting. Horizontally, we can make out large words printed over a landscape background. Lines include “Fame and Fortune Is the Game I Play,” taken from punk band Mission of Burma’s song “Fame and Fortune” (1981). Vertically, there’s another element that we have to deal with: Here the artist has also screen-printed quotes from American culture, sourcing words from figures such as Barack Obama, Yoko Ono and Hunter S. Thompson. The lines repeat as they descend. For example, Alfred E. Smith’s aphorism “The cure for the the concept of democracy / more democracy” is continually replicated until it reaches the floor.

The clashing iconography, the information overload—they’re all intentional. It’s an apt summation of the current political moment in America, a work that visually communicates the confusion and fear that most Americans are currently feeling. We’re not supposed to be able to read each text selection in its entirety; instead, we’re intended to feel the fragmentation, to have to take in the snippets on their own.

There’s a chaotic interplay between these disparate elements. Words, image, bands of color. In a quick scan, I noticed the words “fried,” “sins,” “blood,” “democracy” and “fascism.” Though not belonging to the same quote, these words swirled together, their placement in proximity to one another essentially creating a new text.

The size makes the work seem daunting at first, but it rewards time and attention. It would be futile to try and read “Hello America” methodically, like a book. There’s a natural tension between wanting to read from left to right and then top to bottom, and this causes collisions between the fragments of text, further intensified by the acidic background image, a landscape of skeletal trees taken not far from North Adams.

Speaking to Denise Markonish ’97, curator at MASS MoCA and Brandeis alum, Wardwell explained some of the process behind the work, noting that the piece was specifically designed with the space in mind.

“When I saw how Joe’s work had shifted,” Markonish said, “how he was incorporating text and landscape, I thought this might make a great wall work.” Markonish then detailed approaching Wardwell about creating a piece for a huge space in MASS MoCA, which was something much larger than he’d ever done before. “Joe’s a superhero,” she added.

Wardwell then went into the skilfull technique that creating “Hello America” entailed. “I used to be a printmaker,” he said, “Prior to graduate school I worked in a lithography shop making artist’s prints,” He explained the complex, time-consuming process that went into making the piece, such as having to apply several different layers of vinyl and spending four entire days peeling off certain parts. “The result is all those different layers pushing on each other,” he said.

“I really wanted to up my game,” Wardwell told the crowd. He explained how the piece had been conceived during the lead-up to the 2016 election, in a chaotic political reality. “Everything seemed more and more significant as the political dialogue in our country became more and more unavoidable.”

Markonish seemed really pleased by the piece. “Seeing you rise to the challenge is kind of the best thing as a curator,” she said to Wardwell. He said he relished the challenge. “I’d never been in that position before—where who I was as an artist was completely challenged, and my potential was expanded in two months,” Wardwell added.

Joe Wardwell’s massive screen-printing work “Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States” is on display at MASS MoCA for at least the next two years. “I’m not in any rush to fill this space,” Markonish said.

“Hello America” and plenty of other great exhibitions (i.e. James Turrell’s “Into the Light,” the exhibit “The Half-Life of Love” or Laurie Anderson’s works), are well worth the two-and-a-half-hour trip.

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