Ron Baron: Ode to A Void at Studio 10
October 12 – November 4, 2018
56 Bogart Street, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street
Note: Artist in conversation with Jonathan Santlofer, Friday, November 2, 7PM
Emptiness, nothingness, nullity, void. That the human mind can conceive of a nothing as a something is an extraordinary feat of intellectual abstraction. But to anyone who’s suffered the loss of a loved one the concept is neither extraordinary nor abstract: the absence that fills their lives is an ever-looming, visceral, and unrelenting presence. Like a gaping hole in the world that bears the contours of the lost person, the void of the bereaved is so real it can acquire a life of its own. In some cases it can live longer than the person replaced.
In Ode to A Void, Ron Baron delivers a deeply felt experience of human absence in a new installation of exquisite subtlety. Inside a darkened room lit only by four carefully calibrated spotlights, a large spiral path of particulate matter stretches quietly across the gallery floor. Placed rhythmically atop the sand-like substance, its speckled white surface glinting in bright discs of light, dozens of pairs of ceramic shoes circle inward toward the spiral’s center. Most of them matte white like the dust they sit on (bisque-fired, they’ve been left unfinished by a final pass through the kiln), the shoes’ interiors are painted a light-devouring black. Slip-cast from shoes Baron collected from thrift stores, each pair bears the imprint of the anonymous life once lived in it. Except when it doesn’t, as in one particularly moving instance where a pristine pair of children’s ice skates looks as if it was never worn. Threadbare slippers, work boots, ballet shoes and high heels stand alongside weathered cowboy boots, sneakers, men’s loafers and baby shoes. Like so many empty vessels that have outlived their purpose, the shoes march in a silent procession toward the vanishing point in the center. Hauntingly beautiful and rich in associative resonance, the piece eviscerates abstraction and lodges right in the bones.
If physical traces of those absent manifest in the shoes’ wear, less literal evocations of lives lived also pervade the installation. Strewn about the spiral path are bits of flowers and broken glass, perhaps the remnants of birthdays and graduations, weddings and funerals. But even more affectively provocative are Baron’s use of placement and the range of treatments he gives to the shoes. Occasionally, the tiny shoes of a child will be nestled inside an adult’s, or an adult pair will erupt vertically from the interior of a toddler’s. Each is meticulously crafted to its own emotional note. Some pairs are marred by a barrage of rusty nails. Others are bound by metal wire or riddled with holes. Still others, departing from the stark white that predominates, have been ornately painted and glazed with various finishes, their bright colors perhaps suggestive of lives just extinguished. Between the moments of tenderness and the undertow of anguish, the swirling form pulsates with the full spectrum of human emotion. Circling its exterior – its outermost arm forming a closed ring, we’re barred from entering – we become empathic onlookers of the whole human drama.
Gazing down across the spiral, its form suggestive of our galactic home, we’re led to consider our predicament in the universe. Bound inside time, acutely aware of our own smallness and finitude and yet feeling ourselves and those we love to be as large as the world, we live in eternal incongruity with our indifferent cosmos. And what will remain when there’s no one left to remember that the species that mattered so much to itself even existed?
The economy of means with which Baron is able to evoke such ultimate questions is remarkable. Indeed, his use of a metonymically implied personal to conjure the universal charges the work with the kind of condensed expression we expect of great poetry. In this, the “ode” in the show’s title seems particularly apt. For while the human mind may be able to grasp negation in the abstract, the reasoning faculty founders when it comes to its own. Perhaps it’s only with the language of poetry that we can think the unthinkable – and, if not exactly accept the unacceptable, dare to feel the flame in all its intensity before it goes out. For all the absence in Baron’s work, the heat is palpable.