Beyond, beyondSmack Mellon
September 23– November 5, 2017
The most elemental mode of human travel is on foot, walking. (The bipedal mode of transportation is considered a hallmark of Homo sapiens). We use shoes, the stewards of this journey, as a metaphor for life experience when we say to walk a mile in someone else’s’ shoes, or if the shoe fits, wear it. We use them to symbolize and rationalize when we say, the shoe is on the other foot.
In Beyond-Beyond, Ron Baron takes these symbols of human life—of animated travel, of standing on one’s own two feet—and freezes them by slipcasting them in white clay. Like the ash-petrified residents of Pompeii, these shoes were once made of material supple enough to protect a range of motion, yet are now hardened in place.
As I enter the Smack Mellon’s main gallery, I am confronted by a battalion of ghosts. Shoes cast in white ceramic populate the gallery’s central nave and line the walls of the aisles. Some gather near the columns, as if an invisible body rests a shoulder there, waiting for the train, or is posed in anticipation of being asked to dance. Each pair faces the same direction, toes towards the entrance of the gallery.
The darkened space makes me aware of the cathedral-like elements of its formerly industrial architecture. The shape of the ceiling gives form to a dim void, nearly empty, yet crowded with the many souls (better put, soles) that comprise Ron Baron’s installation Beyond-Beyond.
In the dim light, separated by individual spotlights, each pair of shoes becomes an artifact. Like mummies, Baron’s sculptures are painstakingly crafted. Each is individually cast from a used pair of shoes that the artist collected from thrift stores and garage sales. Some shoes have square nails driven through them, others are drilled with holes, and one set of ballet flats has a cross carved through the sole. Others are split down the middle, smashed, or otherwise deformed.
At intervals, the elevated train can be heard clattering over the Manhattan Bridge, a reminder of the bustling life of human endeavors outside in the world of the living. Upon closer inspection, one notices that it’s not just pairs of shoes illuminated by each light, but often one or two pairs together. There might be a pair of loafers matched with the galoshes of a small child, or a pair of heels balanced in someone else’s boots, toes tucked into the opening for the ankle.
The familiarity of these functional objects, as well as their placement in relation to each other, allows for the projection of many stories: birth, growth, loss, departure, walking, dancing, working. Perhaps two pairs assembled together belong to a parent and a child, or perhaps they are manifestations of the same sole during different walks of life.
Unencumbered by their original materials or amount of wear and the value judgments of animal skin vs. pleather, the shoes are open for projection. Are the high heels those of an executive, a secretary, a drag queen, or a sex worker? Are the work boots those of a hip-hop star or a day laborer? And what about the tiny booties, soon to be outgrown? These are not readymades, but carefully crafted stand-ins.
Unlike the chillingly vast hall of shoes belonging to victims of the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D. C., or Ai WeiWei’s Laundromat, an installation of clothes and shoes collected from a Greek refugee camp and displayed at Deitch Projects in 2016, Baron’s objects are not the evidence of human-made tragedy, but the embodiment of our efforts to cope with loss.
The wall text in the gallery’s entrance hints that the work emanates from events in the artist’s own life, stating, “In 2013, Baron’s family suffered profound loss.” This vague addition left me wondering why this information would be included without specific details. Without the details, such a suggestive piece of information feels overly prescriptive, even cloying. In the presence of a work that is so clearly about passage, the universal human experience of grief, and our desire to freeze time and memory in the time before the fall, the work should be left to speak for itself.
Beyond-Beyond is both deeply traditional (the realism of the white material evoking classical statuary) and anti-monumental (it privileges the ground). In looking down at the works, we bow our heads, immediately performing the stance of contemplation. This asks us to remember the variety of our common experiences, to recognize our own boots or someone else’s, and the fact that we’re all inescapably walking in the same direction. Even if we lean against the wall for a moment, time marches on as we move from this world to what’s beyond.