In his 25 years of living and working in Harlem, the Jamaican artist Nari Ward has collected and accumulated a mind-boggling amount of stuff. Mundane items, scavenged objects, street trash, construction debris, bits of infrastructure, textiles of every description: these are the raw materials of Ward’s work, which, starting today, takes over the three main floors of the New Museum on Bowery.
The exhibition is called "We the People," and it’s the artist’s first ever retrospective in a New York City museum, taking us from his days as a student at Brooklyn College in the early 1990s to recent pieces making their NYC debut.
There are show-stoppers everywhere you turn. Ward's work is mostly sculptural in nature, and he loves going big. "Amazing Grace" is here, for example, his 1993 gut punch of a piece built from dozens of strollers he found abandoned on the street, tied together by lengths of filthy fire hose, and arranged into the shape of ship's hull. Mahalia Jackson's rendition of the spiritual classic loops overhead as you walk through.
Ward's blinking sign "Apollo/Poll," his tribute to the 125th Street theater and last seen at Socrates Sculpture Park almost two years ago, is given a prominent perch on the fifth floor. The startling "Hunger Cradle" greets you on the second floor as you exit the elevator, Ward's impossibly busy spider-web thick with trapped relics taken from an derelict Harlem firehouse. And you'll smell "Super Stud Salt Table" long before you see it, thanks to the dried codfish arranged upon the sand in totemic patterns.
There are shopping carts, a hundred baseball bats, countless worn and torn rugs, and a beat-up piano covered in keys. A tanning bed made from oil drums makes for an arresting sculpture in the busy third floor gallery, along with floating bottles (complete with messages secreted inside), and the show's namesake piece dripping from the wall. Back on five you'll find a life-sized NYPD tactical platform, guarded by a taxidermy fox sporting a picked-out Afro-tail, an eBay find Ward gleefully named "Cornell" in homage to the activist.
Nari Ward: We the People will be at The New Museum through May 26.