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Tracy Hicks, Artist

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Created: May 12, 2003
Latest Update: May 12, 2003

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"The environment of private objects and their possession -- of which collections are an extreme manifestation -- is a dimension of our life that is both essential and imaginary. -- As essential as dreams." Jean Baudrillard

In this age of virtual or mediated reality, the homespun sculptures of Tracy Hicks look somewhat arcane, nostalgic, perhaps even sentimental. But that is exactly the point. By exploring his own relationship to the past through a collection of timeworn objects, Hicks exhorts us likewise to look back and evaluate our own histories and examine our own values in the interest of gaining a fuller, more meaningful life. The implication is, of course, that life is short and needs to be cherished, fostered, and nurtured. The message is reminiscent of that of 17th-century Netherlandish Vanitas paintings, a type of still-life painting in which symbolic objects such as skulls, snuffed out candles, books, and dying flowers were intended to remind their owners of the transience of life, and to admonish them to lead their lives accordingly.

While the current exhibition is largely concerned with issues of preservation, Hicks' earlier work dealt more directly with the passage of time and its attendant change. Alluding to the artist as alchemist, he set up slow chemical reactions in glass jars involving salt and objects like rusty nails, often resulting in visually stunning effects. He also used organic matters such as apples in various stages of consumption or states of decay to mark time. He is in the process of casting in bronze 365 variations of the "forbidden" fruit, well aware of the apple's powerful associations and the paradoxical nature of the undertaking.

One of our albeit futile attempts to stop time is to recover bits and pieces of the past by collecting things that have some particular significance for us. Another way is to reconnect somehow with our own childhood. In this exhibition, Tracy Hicks does both.

At the beginning of this century, artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee sought to renew their art and overcome academic conventions by imitating children's drawings, including drawings from their own childhoods. Hicks has used a similar strategy. But rather than turning to the childhood activity of drawing, he as transformed his childhood passion for collection and canning things into a viable way of making art.

One of the most successful manifestations of this persistent passion for collecting and canning is his Storeroom, the major work in this installation. It raises issues of preservation, such as what to save and why. In the mundane world, a storeroom is a place where we put things we are currently not using. They may be things we are keeping around for sentimental reasons, like old books and photographs. They may be objects that have outlived their usefulness, but with which we are for some reason not yet ready to part, like a worn-out scrub brush. They may be things we use seasonally, like dried Indian corn. Or they may be things like canned tomatoes, which are kept in reserve until we are ready to eat them. Tracy Hick's Storeroom is such a compendium of fascinating, but mostly useless (in the conventional sense) treasures, carefully preserved in bell or Mason jars and supported by a system of freestanding pantry shelves. Perusing these shelves, we feel transported to another time and place, a very different experience from scanning the bright lit shelves of a supermarket for the latest consumer products. And while we may not find much to eat, we will find much food for thought.

The installation's intimate (Rembrandtesque) lighting adds to the feeling of mystery and nostalgia, and reinforces the essentially private nature of the project. Each of the objects or materials is displayed for contemplation in its own individual jar, like the Host presented in a monstrance for adoration. Its position on the shelf appears to be arbitrary, unlike a David McManaway Jomo Board, where every object has its own place and functions in a complex narrative. These jars are interchangeable and may be rearranged at will. This flexibility underscores the tenuousness of the system and puts into question the idea that the life of these objects -- rescued from oblivion by having been transformed into art -- is guaranteed.

As soon as we begin to examine what is "in store" for us, we begin to realize that it is not the inherent value of the object that we are asked to consider, but what the object represents. We begin to "read" the jars containing earth as references to the land and to place, as in "red sand from Oklahoma." There is a reference to the sea in the form of broken seashells, and there is jar after jar filled with seeds from the Otis and Velma Davis Dozier collection, carefully dated and labeled as to their origins, reminding us not only of the continuity of life and our agricultural past, but also of the first inhabitants of this region, the Hopi, Iroquois, and Pueblo Indians. In the contest of the preserved pages from Proverbs, we think of the countless metaphoric uses of the seed in the Bible, such as the parable of the good and bad seed, just as we see the snakeskin as representing not just a snake but the snake of the Bible, a symbol of evil and the fall of man in the context of the preserved pages of Milton's powerful epic poem Paradise Lost. The latter title becomes more concrete when we see it in relation to the many jars containing fragments of the American flag.

The Storeroom is inhabited by countless photographs of anonymous people displayed in individual bottles and jars. There are photographs of babies, children, families, and friends. Most of the subjects are carefully posed and symmetrically arranged before their home, car, or garden. These photographs are not of or by the artist, but were rescued by him from oblivion. They make the point of photography's original purpose, which was to preserve something, and, with respect to people, to render some evidence of a life lived.

In many ways, the Storeroom is a collection of collections, of re-collections. The photographs, hair, old soap, hardware, deflated football, and of course seeds were initially collected by someone else. The result is a more universal statement: the objects represent everyone's past. The Storeroom functions as a reminder of what life was like when people grew things from their own seeds, preserved their own food, and valued their families, country, spirituality, and cultural heritage. The Storeroom is about rootedness, connections, the "brotherhood of man." It is also about loss and the consciousness of mortality. And yet the very idea of a storeroom is life affirming. We store something for future use -- by us or by future generations. We ask ourselves, What is "in store" for them?

Annegreth Nill
Associate Curator of Contemporary Art
Dallas Museum of Art


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