Nari Ward: Poetic Justice

With haunting juxtapositions of objects at once fragile and grandiose, the Jamaica-born artist comments on liberty, democracy, and his own story as an immigrant

T.P. Reign Bow, 2012, features a tactical platform used by police to surveil high-risk neighborhoods.


At the end of a tour of his recent exhibition at Lehmann Maupin in downtown Manhattan, Nari Ward hands me his business card and pointedly flips it over to show a series of bulleted statements printed on the back. “I wish to speak to my attorney now” reads one, followed by “I will not waive any of my constitutional rights.” Ward’s idea of adding to his business card an abbreviated list of Miranda rights (the rights every arrested person must be informed of by the police) came from one of his brothers, a lawyer, who hands his own Miranda-rights printed card out to clients. But the rights of ordinary citizens have always been much on Ward’s mind—and never more so than in the last year, when he personally went through the process of becoming a United States citizen. “What is my role now? How do I deal with authority?” Ward says he asked himself.

Born in St. Andrew, Jamaica, in 1963, the artist had been a permanent resident of the U.S. for close to 30 years, but he didn’t start thinking about citizenship until a few years ago. Some of the works in the Lehmann Maupin show, titled “Liberty and Orders,” patently referred to the privileges of citizenship. In We the People (2011), the first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution, “We the people,” are elegantly spelled out on the wall in tall Gothic script using shoelaces. In Blank Scale (2012), an outsize Scales of Justice is made from coiled strips of used blankets and pants cuffs. But the largest work in the show alluded to the sometimes surreal aspects of living in the various urban wastelands Ward has occupied over the years. Called T.P.Reign Bow (2012), it is a re-creation of a tactical platform (hence the “T.P.”), adapted from the military and used by the police to keep watch over high-risk neighborhoods.

“These things are like towers for crime surveillance. They put them in front of the projects,” Ward says. “I remember seeing them in my neighborhoods. They made me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I felt safer because they were there. But at the same time I realized I didn’t know what the hell was going on. How much authority was I giving over to feel protected? That was one of the things I wondered about when I was making this piece.”

The tall blue structure, which emits red surveillance lasers, offers at its base a pool of spiraling zippers threaded with human hair (a reference, Ward says, to the fairy tale of Rapunzel in the tower). A stuffed fox with a bushy black tail seems to stand guard; the artist found him on eBay and named him Cornel, after Cornel West, the activist, professor, and philosopher. The stuffed mammal is meant to represent “the mischievous intellectual,” the artist claims.

Just as T.P. Reign Bow eludes easy interpretation, Ward’s earlier pieces have baffled critics, both in their meaning and in their materials. Ward has, at various points in his career, used pieces of dried codfish, baby strollers, church pews, cotton balls, beat-up oil barrels, police shoes, pants pockets, folios from a catalogue of early Italian paintings, rum bottles, and even a recycled ambulance filled with blasts of smoke.

But when Ward hits the mark, the results can be memorable. In 2008 at Prospect.1 in New Orleans, he installed a huge diamond-shaped basket of damaged weight-lifting equipment inside an abandoned Baptist church, a metaphor for the city’s powerlessness in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Describing the work, the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl wrote: “Ward puts art in service to something that is, declaratively, more important than art. Emerging from the church into the surrounding desolation, you will be moved.”

Indeed, the poetry of his pieces can be grandiose or fragile. One of the simplest sculptures at Lehmann Maupin, and the one imbued with the most autobiographical resonance, was titled Scape (2012). Made from dangling shoelaces in many colors, the work created the illusion of a ladder placed high on the wall and leading up to a schematic trapdoor at the top. “When I was in grade school, when we moved from Jamaica to New Jersey, we had this house, and the only place I had that was my own was in the attic,” Ward recalls. “It was this little tiny space, and I remember pulling down this ladder to get to it.”

A wiry man with a broad nose and piercing dark eyes, Ward has few recollections of his childhood in St. Andrew, where his mother worked as a housekeeper and his father as a driver for the university. He liked to watch a few TV shows, such as Bonanza and Star Trek, on the black-and-white set his parents owned, and to catch birds by luring them with bits of bread. The family came to the United States because one of his mother’s employers in the mid-’70s was Fred Schwartz, a.k.a. Fred the Furrier of Alexander’s department store, who vacationed in Jamaica and whose wife had a mentally handicapped brother. The Schwartzes eventually asked Ward’s mother to come to the United States, first to work in their household and later to take care of the wife’s brother, offering Ward’s mother a house in Parsippany, New Jersey. Little by little, the rest of the family—Nari, his father, his three older brothers, and his older sister—joined her in this country.

It was in a vocational high-school art class that Ward first discovered his strengths. “Art jumped on me more than anything else,” he says. “I remember being in this class, being the new kid, and I’m still trying to figure things out, and I was drawing a little Santa Claus on the wall. I must have been around 13. One kid came over and said, ‘Wow! You’re an artist.’ That became my identity. I locked into that identity.”

Ward initially thought he might become an illustrator, and he applied to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, largely because one of his high-school teachers covered the windows of his office with SVA posters so that the students couldn’t look inside. Ward was accepted there, but he lasted only three semesters before his student loans ran out. In a class taught by figurative painter Juan Gonzalez, Ward recalls, “we were forced to keep a journal and go to galleries. I really got a layout of what the art world was about.”

Next came a job with a photo retoucher, in the days when that task was done with inks and dyes. “It was very disciplined but very boring,” Ward says. The studio’s subway stop was close to Hunter College, and Ward decided to take art classes there. One teacher in particular—a painter named Emily Mason, who still shows regularly at David Findlay Jr. in New York and LewAllen Galleries in Sante Fe—was especially encouraging. “She connected me with the Vermont Studio Center and got me a scholarship for a couple of summers,” he says. “It was there that I realized I could do art and that all artists aren’t crazy. I saw artists who lived regular lives and had families. Going there normalized the role of being an artist.”

After graduating from Hunter in 1991 and taking classes at the Art Students League of New York, Ward was encouraged by the artist Al Loving to go to Yale and by the artist William T. Williams to check out the nearby Brooklyn College. He chose Brooklyn, where the faculty then included Lee Bontecou, Philip Pearlstein, and Allan D’Arcangelo. At the time, Ward was living in the Bronx with his girlfriend, Noemi—later to become his wife—and had to commute for about an hour and a half each way to classes. So he took to spending some nights in his grad-student studio.

“I knew the routine of the guards, so I’d be able to go scavenge material from the basement,” Ward says. “This is how I got into sculpture.” His graduate thesis, however, was composed of hundreds of dried and blackened plantains that he had bought from local grocery stores at ten for a dollar. “I dipped them in gel medium,” he recalls, “and hung them around the studio. They shrank to a quarter of their size and were like cut phalluses. Somehow they were empowering, but I never really figured out what they meant—some element of black power. I was flirting with working in three dimensions but not totally committed yet.”

A scholarship to Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture’s summer residency program reaffirmed his decision to pursue sculpture. “I remember the director at the time, Barbara Lapcek, telling me, ‘If you’re coming here to do what you normally do, you’re wasting your time,’” Ward says. Up to that point, as an M.F.A. candidate, he had been doing mostly drawings, which he describes as “abstract and process-based.” He began experimenting with cotton balls, dipping them in mud, ironing them, and nailing them to different surfaces. “I wanted to work with cotton for its connotations with the healing process, not for the slavery associations,” he says. “I wondered how I could transform it so that my application would be totally different. It was really about transformation through labor.”

After graduating from Brooklyn College, Ward found a squat, or illegal sublet, on 116th Street in Harlem. The apartment was a six-floor walk-up in a building inhabited by drug dealers, numbers runners, and crack addicts. “They were just neighborhood folks,” he claims. But when the artist started dragging stuff up from the street, odds and ends to use in his sculpture, the other tenants—ironically—became alarmed.

“They saw me bringing things in and wanted to call the police on me,” he recalls. “They understood the dealers and the numbers runners but thought I was not right, that I was going to cause trouble for them. To them, artists were from another realm. They asked me to leave in a nice way.” He laughs. “You know, threateningly.”

When asked why he settled in a rough neighborhood in Harlem after a childhood in relatively safe precincts, Ward turns thoughtful. “I was reacting to the richness of the narratives there, the stories, the loss, the urban blight,” he says. “I felt there was a voice that wasn’t being addressed, and I just started working with found objects. Even in Los Angeles, especially in L.A., after the riots in 1992, there was a whole movement of people who were working in this way. So maybe it was less about me and more a reaction to the sociopolitical situation. For me the creative part was how to deal with [that situation].”

Earlier, though, while still a student at SVA, Ward had lived with an aunt in a building on 155th Street, “a really cool old building that overlooked the Polo Grounds and the whole of the Bronx. I wanted to stay in Harlem. I felt a connection with it,” he says.

It was during a 1992 residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem that Ward began to work with abandoned baby strollers, which he found on the street—sometimes as many as ten in one weekend. They intrigued him because they were often used to collect bottles and cans by people who were considered by society to be marginalized. His goal was to make a piece with 365 strollers, one for each day of the year, but the space the museum offered for a show was too small—so Ward looked around for his own space. Eventually, he found a firehouse in Harlem where he was able to curate exhibitions with fellow artists Janine Antoni and Marcel Odenbach. And in 1993, he finally realized the show, which featured 365 strollers bound with twisted hose and configured into the shape of a ship’s hull—an installation he called Amazing Grace, which will be re-created at the New Museum in New York in February. It was an immediate hit.

“The piece, accompanied by a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing the hymn that is its title, is both euphoric and elegiac, celebratory and grim,” wrote Roberta Smith in the New York Times. Others soon took note, such as dealer Jeffrey Deitch—now the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art—and curators Dan Cameron and Klaus Kertess, who featured Ward’s work in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Deitch was the first to act, including the artist in his section of the 1993 Venice Biennale, turning him loose on his downtown project space, and finally signing him to the roster of Deitch Projects in 1996. Ward stayed there for almost 14 years before joining Lehmann Maupin in the summer of 2009, where his sculptures now range in price from $30,000 to $85,000, and his large-scale sculptural installations start at $100,000.

One of the 2012–13 Rome Prize fellows, Ward has been living in the Italian capital since September with his family, which includes a 15-year-old son and a ten-year-old daughter. In Italy, the artist continues to explore “how different people deal with their garbage,” an ongoing fascination, and is preparing for an exhibition at the Canzani Center Gallery at the Columbus College of Art & Design this year and a major solo exhibition at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art in February 2014. Ward, who says he is tone-deaf and has little interest in music or hobbies, is still mostly into “collecting stuff from the streets” in his free time—though he adds that he has recently become fascinated with reading the works of Robert Farris Thompson, a professor at Yale who has written extensively on the art of Africa and its diaspora.

“I’ll have a project where I go on binges of collecting,” the artist says. “For the last show, I was collecting the backs of television sets. We’d be driving and I’d stop the car and scoot out. I called it ‘skinning the TV,’ and my kids timed me.” He breaks into a wide grin. “I’d have all my tools, run out of the car, and in 15 seconds skin the TV.”

Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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