A. Clarke Bedford loves old things. As an artist, he is adept at bringing out the charm, personality, and inherent strangeness in all things outmoded. While quirky, his collages and assemblages are also beautifully constructed. His seamless craftsmanship is likely a product of Bedford’s professional training. When he is not creating a new piece or adding to his collection of fine antiques and esoteric junk, Mr. Bedford works as a Conservator of Paintings and Mixed-Media Objects at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
In his new show, Wundergarten: Salvaging the Family Archive at the Hillyer Art Space in Washington DC, Bedford explores how old photographs and discarded objects can serve as repositories for our collective memories. For this installation, he collected hundreds of old photographs and discarded things from a real family. The people from whom he borrowed these objects came from the artist’s generation and the two proceeding it, or as he describes it, “WWI generation grandparents, WWII parents, and baby-boomer self.” The installation is arranged so that the objects and photographs presented seem simultaneously anonymous and familiar. Bedford explains “one begins to wonder if every snapshot of grandparents in a Model A Ford in Yosemite National Park, every image of a postwar father in an Army uniform, every mother in a 50s suburban kitchen, every painful Vietnam-era Christmas morning isn’t essentially the same.” The artist is able to look beyond the individual objects and snapshots and begins to view them as evidence of certain cultural practices. He examines why taking pictures is an important American pastime, and why certain types of photographs, like wedding pictures and portraits of stoic soldiers in uniform surface so frequently. As we move around the exhibit, we are also treated to an informal history of snapshot photography. The old cameras and pictures on display become more sophisticated as the show progresses.
Bedford has arranged the little gallery into a mock-garden. He set the scene by arranging wonderful fake plants constructed out of metallic household objects. A slightly sinister Christmas tree, built out of rusty old fans, colored lights and strings of snapshots is also present. Bedford then created totems to represent the three different generations and arranged them side-by-side and facing a constructed photographer at the other side of the room. These characters are built out of photographs, found objects and articles formally possessed by the individuals they represent. They are simultaneously hilarious and somewhat sinister. Grandma is particularly unnerving. Her head is a yellowed skull from whence sprouts an old fashioned bride and groom cake decoration. Her makeshift torso is adorned in the worn-out beaded material of an old flapper gown. Grandma’s breasts, flattened by time, are insinuated by two side-by-side framed oval photographs. Upon leaning in for closer inspection, you might notice Grandma’s faint oder of decay. Grandpa consisted of an antique gas mask surrounding a globe, referencing his military experience and perhaps alluding to the worldliness he gained during the war and the suffocating claustrophobia he might have felt upon returning to suburbia. Dad is topped by a painted wooden cut-out of a Don Draper-like torso. his head and shoulders sit above a silver tray holding his possessions, such as a watch, a pack of smokes and a photograph of the real individual portrayed. Mom, who wears a wedding dress and a crown of miniature garden peacocks, presents a tray topped by a martini glass, alluding to one of her favorite pastimes. Brother and Sister are shorter and seem insignificant in comparison. Sister consists of little more than a sheet of green taffeta rounded into the shape of a ghost and topped with an over-sized pink bow. Brother’s most memorable feature are two bonze baby booties placed at the level of his face.
The title, Wundergarten, alludes to 16th and 17th century curiosity cabinets that contained natural wonders and other small objects. The title suggests a certain scientific component to Bedford’s undertaking. It also implies that our tendency to accumulate objects goes back hundreds of years or more. The show is simultaneously an anthropological adventure, an intelligent, well-curated installation, and a guilty pleasure.
Wundergarten: Salvaging the Family Archive will be on display through May 19th. More of Bedford’s delightfully insane work can be seen on his website.