Before you even make your way to the entrance of the Hillyer Art Space, you’re greeted with what artist Clarke Bedford likes to call an “art car” — a mangled family van cluttered with chicken wire and scrapheap protrusions.
Everything is made of metal, but nothing is welded together in order to preserve the original finish of each appendage. Bedford claims that this is the only kind of car he owns, and he doesn’t even have a garage.
Such is the style of “Wundergarten: Sa[l]vaging the Family Archive,” a solo exhibition open until May 29 at the Hillyer Court. Modeled after a Wunderkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” the pieces catalog relics of a forgotten family in the form of garden furniture.
Curator Laura Rolet said that Bedford collected most of the pieces from a woman who was forced to throw away an old friend’s keepsakes, including family photos, albums, diaries and other mementos. Bedford was fascinated by how personal these items were and wanted to give them new poignancy by “exploiting” that very aspect. And it’s indicative in both the name and nature of the exhibit just how rightfully personal and sometimes creepy the pieces can be.
The garden-exhibition follows the Groff family from the black-and-white World War I generation to the sepia-toned era of the ‘80s. Each wall of the exhibit holds a different place in time as well as their accompanying themes. An instamatic is placed atop a picture of a young, frumpily dressed woman tending to her flower patch; a Polaroid is surrounded by faded snapshots of men in uniform.
Bedford not only contextualizes each photo by neighboring them with artifacts of the time, but also fleshes them out in creative and disturbing ways. A rusty fan-blade becomes a Christmas tree and its trimmings are Polaroids of the Groff family celebrating the yuletide season. Vacuum cleaners, martini glasses and gardening equipment are just some of the fixtures he uses as picture frames. A globe wearing a gas mask and an army uniform stands next to a skull in a bridal shawl, with pictures of a newly married couple under each display. This is how Bedford viewed the Groff family.
With the progression of time instilled in each photo, there’s an unsettling sense of foreboding that works on you slowly but surely. In each picture, the family is stoic and unsmiling, a rather fitting expression with the exhibit’s recurring themes of war. Bedford’s art transcends the gap of generation, as people of all ages are sure to grasp the sense of fragile humanity with even a simple once-over.
Possibly the most illuminating part of the exhibit is in the far left corner. A small couch is appended with spigots and pipes, sitting in front of a coffee table with a photo album centerpiece. Scattered amid the album are receipts, newspaper clippings, ration tickets and matchboxes, all tinged with discoloration from age. Bedford invites observers to be invasive — to sit down and peruse these gems as if they were our own. The album has personal memos from family members that detail the events behind each photo. A fleeting nostalgia takes over, as if we’re reflecting on our own memories.
Through the use of shocking and topical imagery, Bedford makes the Groff family a commonplace miracle by exploiting their extensively documented history. In observing these prototypical suburbanites in their youth, we feel remorseful for their apparent lack of vivacity and the rough-and-tumble travails of war. Bedford’s idiosyncratic style works to make the irony of this observation all the more visually obvious.
Although Rolet said it isn’t the main objective, Bedford is also hoping to find anyone who may have known the family through the exhibit’s popularity. In any case, it’s a family worth immortalizing.