In his 2001 appraisal of the historical and emerging interest in material culture and materiality, literary critic Bill Brown theorized, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us: when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy, when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily.”  Objects become things, according to Brown, when the relationship between people and objects change, when the object stops operating according to its conventions and we begin to look at it—this thing—anew.
Shane Darwent’s studio is filled with things: formerly a plastic scooter, a doghouse, a braid of artificial hair. These objects cradled the form of a child, housed a family pet, and had been woven close to a person’s scalp. But when the wheel cracks, or the roof leaks, or the hair falls out, these objects become discarded and turn into things. They stop working for us, but that is precisely why they work for Darwent.
Biking though his Southside neighborhood in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he rents a house and a studio, Darwent scans the landscape for things. Things stacked into ingenious Tetris-like configurations on curbsides or left in the shadows of overpasses—things that had once held meaning, but outgrown, robbed of utility and exchange value in the circuits of capitalism, take up space as relics. Fascinated by things, Darwent pieces these found materials into sculptures that speak of imagined former lives as objects, just as they take on new complexity as forms.
The Flood originated with a Styrofoam cup, one of those ubiquitous items found stacked next to coffee machines in gas stations (fig. 1). Decorated with effervescent geometric graphics reminiscent of the 1980s and 90s, the cup lay flattened and crumpled under an interstate overpass. Its imagery—bright red triangles, pink wavy lines and blue rectangles suspended against a white background like thrown confetti—now scatters across the base of The Flood (fig. 2). Out of the foundation rise other found objects: a teal and white pool ladder, yellow plastic pipes, a purple bicycle seat, a red broom handle. The sculpture becomes the Styrofoam cup writ large, expressing the dynamism of bold colored forms in space.
A blue water hose wraps and holds the disparate forms together, weaving around the nose of the bicycle seat and up the ladder like a vine, or, more akin to the diamond pattern on its rubber surface, like a snake. Looking at this work, I had a chilling recollection of the ancient sculpture, The Laocoön and His Sons, which reenacts the story of the doomed Trojan priest in Vergil’s Aeneid, strangled by sea serpents sent from the gods. This evocation of being tied down, immobilized by outside forces, adds a layer of social urgency onto Darwent’s playful formalism.
The Southside neighborhood in which he lives and works is one of the most depressed areas of the city, just beyond the imaginary border of one of the most recently affluent. Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina and attending college in Baltimore, Maryland—two cities known for deep economic disparity—Darwent understands the Southside could be, and is, everywhere. The works of this exhibition revert attention back towards these communities, to areas beyond the city’s “revitalization” and visibility, to reinvigorate value in the things outside of the gentrified circuits of production and distribution.
In this way, Darwent’s sculptures purposefully incorporate pedestals. These pedestals elevate things off of the ground, literally upending the high/low dialectic and drawing our attention to the material. A stack of pastel purple tires, the type that might have been attached to a child’s tricycle, sits at the top of A Tired Ballad (fig. 3). Each tire has been cut and reconfigured, shifting between what we recognize as tread and what can be defamiliarized as tactile friezes of nubby plastic. The pattern is picked up in a doodled pencil and fluorescent yellow helix form, like a high frequency wave, that wraps around the side of the plinth. Slick Caution tape, a green wire hanger, rudimentary letters gouged into wood, and furious scribble marks also cover the sides of the pedestal. These materials once made form—demarcating space, giving shape to slack clothes, creating language, channeling expression—but, with time, succumbed to piles at the edges of yards or in the marginal pockets of public space.
Before the twentieth century, trash was part of a cyclical ecosystem where items were mended, remade, or reconstituted for another purpose. Every last bit of the material was used in some way. In our time, obsolescence is an intrinsic part of the system. As Susan Strasser explained in her social history of trash, “In an industrial system, the flow is one-way: materials and energy are extracted from the earth and converted by labor and capital into industrial products and byproducts, which are sold, and into waste, which is returned to the ecosystem but does not nourish it.” By choosing things destined for the landfill as part of his palette, Darwent creates an alternative economy and system of value. He uses joinery techniques and training as a woodworker to reconfigure and reanimate the machine-made into imaginative tableaus. Radiating over A Tired Ballad is a golden arc of a former stool--Darwent’s monumentalizing of the idea that out of disintegration, there can be growth.
In reconsidering the lifecycle of things, the viewer cannot help but circle back to their former subjects, and, perhaps, to the things we ourselves accumulate and abandon. Like found objects, the found marks on A Tired Ballad, which Darwent discovered on scrap pieces of paper, are subjective artifacts. Depending on the viewer’s response, these scribbles, reminiscent of the earliest gestures we make to express ourselves, can read as raw energy; as an elegy for childhood; of graffiti and deviance; or simply an activation of white space. Such varied interpretive pathways can be applied to all of Darwent’s things; they work as forms, signs, and containers for our own projections.
The affective quality of his sculptures intensifies in the audio-visual work, Twilight on Chamberlin Avenue (fig. 4). A photograph depicts Darwent’s performance of rolling a shopping cart, awkwardly containing a twin mattress, down a street nearby his studio. Such a conspicuous, excessive gesture drew attention from his neighbors, instigating conversations—some about art, some with artists who shared that they, too, liked making things. Yet Darwent shrank the photograph of this event down to the size of a Polaroid, limiting the viewer’s vicarious visual experience. Instead, he amplified an audio recording of ambient sound sourced from the same street: the rattle of his grocery cart, dog barks, the wail of a fire truck, police car sirens. While no artwork can ever replicate lived experience, Darwent overwhelms the aural senses of the listener to convey the phenomenological effect of being present in a place in time, and how place can shape a subject.
In the end, the roving shopping cart serves as an apt metaphor for Darwent’s practice: collecting rather than discarding the outmoded and the outgrown to draw attention to the materiality of the invisible communities in a city. These works offer a counter-narrative of the Southside, a revision of the map for those who think the boundaries end where the restored buildings, coffee shops, and juice bars do. As Darwent explained of his conceptual title for the exhibition, “Southside All Stars was what I first called all those ‘amazing’ houses in our new neighborhood…the ones that were abandoned, boarded up, and painted in some great combination of colors, or simply all one color. They were the ones that were leaning as if sinking into the earth, held afloat only by the utility wires that were fastened to a corner of the roof. The Southside All Stars were these hopeless houses waiting to crumble that had brilliant rose bushes in full bloom next to proud mailboxes. The term eventually came to symbolize not only the haphazard homes in my neighborhood, but became a blanket term for life being celebrated or mourned, won and lost, beyond the glamour of Main Street.” For Darwent, value is found not in the influx of city capital or congratulatory attention, but for those things that endure.