By Dawn Chan
In 1968, Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog, a publication famously marked by its countercultural ideals. As Brand explained, it confronted Americans with a call to action: “Ask not what your country can do for you; do it yourself!” Brand’s ethos animates much of artist Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s solo show at the Aldrich. Titled “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here,” Sheehan’s exhibition prods at the relationship between artisanal craft and industrial production, and posits that the pairing might be uniquely American at heart. At first glance, the show seems like a nondescript gathering of found objects: a drop cloth on the floor, a ketchup bottle on a ledge, a paper-towel dispenser, a match. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a Haim Steinbach show, minus the funky shelves.
As it turns out, Sheehan shepherds her artworks all the way from their beginnings as raw materials to their finished states as manufactured goods. The show’s wall texts themselves were printed with handmade oak gall paint. A mop and pail on view include “handspun cotton cord” and “3-D-printed plastic” in their respective media. Throughout, one can almost sense the artist delighting in the gap between our impulse to view familiar objects with dismissive haste and her desire to produce them with painstaking care.
Like many of her contemporaries, Sheehan seems galvanized by art’s potential to help museums rethink assumptions around labor, collaboration, and community building. Visitors are told that she turned down the help of the Aldrich’s art installers. That six of the museum’s trustees pitched in to paint the gallery walls. That a rug the artist placed in one of the Aldrich’s rooms was “created with the participation of Bill Blachly’s flock of Romney and Border Leicester sheep (Marshfield, VT).”
If a sort of stubbornness marks more than a few conceptual art practices, Sheehan’s is no exception. But the show never feels dogmatic, because the artist never seems to browbeat herself into following any one rule. Not everything must be made from scratch, for example—the ketchup is Sheehan’s work, but its bottle is a found object. Nor is each object infused with an equal degree of symbolism. On the overtly meaning-laden end of the spectrum, an ersatz edition of the CliffsNotes study guide to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) pays homage to a nineteenth-century America mythologized as a nascent site of cultural inspiration. In contrast, a ball of twine seems to be, well, just that.
One can imagine skeptics finding aspects of this work too familiar: its humble but meticulous materiality, its tendency to look like one thing and turn out to be another. None of that bothers me, in light of the artist’s spooky ability to mirror the present and predict the future. Sheehan’s show points to the indulgence propelling those of us willing to pay through the nose for artisanal goods, ostensibly to help skilled workers earn a living wage. But the exhibition also conjures a separate reason Americans gravitate toward DIY methods: fear. One portentous note is struck by the fluorescent-orange life jackets on view, packed with milkweed fluff, as if revamped by a doomsday prepper distrustful of factory standards. Even more sinister is the plastic dispenser full of hand sanitizer mixed from the ethanol of fermented corn and grain. Sheehan’s show may have opened in November of 2019, but she somehow managed to peer several months into the future to find a country preoccupied by thoughts of contagion and supply-chain collapse—a country of jittery, homebound people crafting homemade things.
Top image: Zoë Sheehan Saldaña: There Must Be Some Way Out of Here (installation view), The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, November 24, 2019 to May 17, 2020, Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jason Mandella.