Stuff on Display

Jessica James Lansdon takes old family belongings and turns them into art

Artist Jessica James Lansdon comes from a long line of pack rats.

When her grandmother died, her father got his mother's tchotchkes. When her father and his wife moved away, Lansdon inherited two generations' worth of treasures. Pink crocheted heart pillows, antique books, boa feathers and the like joined her own childhood souvenirs, yellow rubber duckies, teddy bears and princess dolls.

This potpourri of possessions filled up the sheds and extended porch areas in the family home in Tucson, which Lansdon now occupies. In the last year, a new influx of old goods arrived after her aunt became ill.

"Every weekend for the last year, it seems, we sat around a big table of stuff, a glut of stuff," Lansdon says, with the various cousins asking, "Do you want this? Do you want that?"

The mounds of things not only nearly crowded the 26-year-old artist out of her house; they turned her philosophical.

"These are neat, beautiful things, some of them, but they're not valuable. Some of them are worthless. How sad that people work so hard, and struggle and suffer for their objects."

They also gave her the inspiration, and raw material, for an impressive art installation.

Lansdon purged her junk--"I cleaned out my house. I had a wonderful letting go of things"--and turned it into "Liquidation." A gigantic color-coded monument to Lansdon's multi-generational stuff, the piece is the highlight of Lansdon's exhibition, Precious, at Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art. (The museum is also exhibiting the work of Eric Golo Stone; the two-person show is part of its Soon/Pronto series showcasing emerging artists.) The artist, a December grad of the UA's BFA program, recently won a $5,000 artist project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

"Liquidation" covers maybe 200 square feet of floor at the rickety museum in an old warehouse on Toole Avenue, unfurling green necklaces, a pink plastic doll's face, a blue plastic hard hat and about a jillion other objects across the floor planks. The objects are arranged in a 10-by-20-foot shape that roughly approximates South America, to my eye, but Lansdon says others have looked upon it and seen Manhattan. She envisions it as a kind of Western landscape. But that's just the main part.

Lansdon had so many things that she had to create an aisle around her main pile; beyond the walkway is--you guessed it--more stuff. And above, on colored rigging lines, dangles her grandfather's actual boat.

"We used to sail all over in it, but then it was in our yard for a long time. I peeled the fiberglass and plastic off it."

Stripped now to its foam core, the boat is a pure white slice above the dense island of colored objects packed onto the floor below. The colors are surprisingly lovely. Lansdon says she drew on her painterly sense to sort her possessions by color, putting the Elvis on the tin red heart with the pink flamenco doll; the green milk bottle caps with St. Patrick's Day tinsel; the white doilies with the white ostrich feathers. She's worked in a number of different media, including paints and pencil, but for this work, she found herself "using stuff as pigment."

The result is a rainbow of color, beginning with rich blues at the northern tip of South America, sliding into greens somewhere around northern Brazil, then yellows, oranges, pinks and reds down near Tierra del Fuego. The side-aisle objects are in neutral tones, white, silver, brown, black. To Lansdon, the colorations evoke not our southern neighbors but traditional Western landscape paintings, with their bright pigments in the foreground, and pale colors on the fading mountains in the distance.

The double whammy of this big piece is that it not only critically comments on the human propensity for getting and spending; it also delights in the stuff we get. Some of Lansdon's discards are way cool: a book of French stories published in 1903, a small black spice box, Arizona Highways magazines circa 1960, a strand of pale beads. Lansdon knows her audience will lust for at least some of these treasures, so she's invited every viewer to take whatever object they want from the pile.

The two other new pieces in the show also depend on Lansdon's collecting proclivities. A lighted life-size igloo, "Crystal Palace (snail)," was six years in the making: It took the artist that long to save up all plastic bottles and takeout food cartons that it's made of. "Sweet Jesus Saves" recycles the foil tops of yogurt and condiment containers. Lansdon's nailed them to a long, horizontal board, where they flutter and twinkle delicately in the light.

Much of the rest of Lansdon's exhibition is made up of student work, some of it six years old. One piece, "100 Drawings," from 2001 to 2004, fills up a whole wall with sketchbook drawings of widely varying quality. Some of the paintings are energetic experiments with pattern and color, particularly "Space Invaders," a 2002 oil and acrylic on muslin. But it was a curatorial misstep--and a disservice to Lansdon's current work--to clutter up the exhibition with this old stuff. Much better to have purged, as the artist herself did at home. Sometimes less is more.

As she herself says, "It's good that stuff is no longer in my house."

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