signs and symbols is pleased to present Shake Them Ghosts, a solo exhibition by Drew Conrad. The exhibition consists of a site-specific sculptural installation, accompanied by Conrad’s most recent photographic series entitled Moments of Isolation. Known for his large-scale architectural assemblages that confess notions of decay, temporality and ruin, Shake Them Ghosts is a more vulnerable continuum of Conrad’s ruin aesthetics. Often melancholic but with a sense of raw materiality, fragments and scenes of a passed life become the site of a haunting new sublime. Shake Them Ghosts was conceived and created during the global lockdown while Conrad sheltered-in-place, and marks the first new physical exhibition to open at the gallery post pandemic closures.
Conrad’s site-specific installation is constructed almost entirely of found, discarded materials. Guided by an archival impulse, dirt was amassed from various locations over multiple years, bones were collected and harvested, lumber was pilfered from roadsides and trash piles. These collected organic materials intrinsically hold the passage and history of time. They are artefacts left behind, well supplied with aged mementoes. The gathered substance is contained within the installation and spills out of multiple varied vessels such as canvas bags, tree sap jugs, and glass jars. Organic items are further intermixed with religious statues, crosses, along with fragmented remnants from Conrad’s former sculptures. Nine black and white photographic images accompany the sculpture. These ‘still-lifes’ emphasize the distance of the present moment. They are documentation of certain organic items that compose the sculpture —- isolated moments capturing the anxieties, struggles, beauty, and hope during times of isolation and solitude.
Materials were impulsively collected and amassed over multiple years with no final intention in mind, only to be returned to and pondered in isolation now. Conrad writes:
When making this new body of work, I initially gravitated to my normal vein of death and loss. Those common tropes of my past work no longer seemed a fitting subject, even though those themes are prevalent within this body of work. I thought of my regrets. I thought about all the dirt and bones I had been collecting. I thought of death again. I thought about the desire for forgiveness. I thought about the need for transcendence. I thought of the pandemic. I thought about isolation and solitude. I thought about my anxieties and those of the world. I thought of the civil unrest that exist outside my window. I thought about the passing of time. I thought about the pressure of trying to make something worthwhile and sincere within this moment. I realized something about all of these things that I had thought of before. From the first sculpture I ever made, I used a word to describe it. I used that word again when trying to free myself when destroying my past work. I carried it as I began to collect all that dirt from far off locations. I place it upon myself when looking for a reason to create. I feel it as the world convulses and quakes. That word and thing is an unbearable weight; burden.
Burden, n. That which is borne.
The word burden evokes so much of what it refers to. That which is borne. That which is carried. That which is heavy. That which feels unbearable and yet is borne. The act of creating seems far and away from the act of shouldering a burden. One creates something and that thing is no longer a part of oneself; it has become itself and is separate from its creator. But there is a lingering thread that connects a creator to a creation. Is it ownership? Responsibility? Is it neither of these but the feeling of these? The temptation to feel these? What does it mean to let go? What is one letting go of? In his work, Conrad traverses landscapes both internal and external, exposing and revealing human limitation and potential. He explores these different states and ideas of being — one with burden and one without. It is an intensely personal and introspective journey. One that challenges what that even means — to be personal and introspective. What relevance or necessity that journey may have for the world. There is a pulling of forces within Conrad’s process. One that pulls towards the heavy and one that strives to be free of it. This tension is palpable and feels human and true.
In the midst of our current global events, we find ourselves living in a time of catastrophe and systematic decay. Conrad’s sculptural ruin is a remnant of and portal into a past – piles of fragments dismembered from larger dreams, its decay a concrete reminder of the passage of time. And yet by definition, a ruin is a marker of survival and despite its state of decay, the ruin casts us forward in time. It reminds us of a lost perfection that has now become a site of contemplation. Conrad’s ruin of a shrine takes on the form of an intimate altar rather than a temple-like structure. It becomes the site of transcendence with its capacity to place us at the end of a continuum while casting us forward into the future ruin of our own present. In his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ — Walter Benjamin speaks of blasting aspects of the past “out of the continuum of history” in order to create a new future.2 According to this Benjaminian way of thinking, Conrad’s ruin is a site not of melancholy and mourning, but of promise and salvation — a marker pointing to a potential path forward, now only burdened with possibility, even utopian potential. Conrad concludes:
There is an unbearable weight to human existence. It can be given as a birthright, hoisted in the name of perseverance, earned as a mantle, and bore as an anchor of regret. We spend lifetimes culling the earth, gazing towards the heavens, and seeking knowledge of shamans, priests, and mystics trying to escape its grasp, but that burden is bound to us by that which came before. A history that is steeped into the earth and embedded within our bones. It is there like the rings on a tree spiraling back in time. As we search for relief from that weight we shoulder, we must conjure those spirits and confront that past. We must shake those ghosts.
Drew Conrad was born in 1979 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He received his BFA from the University of Georgia in 2001 and his MFA from Parsons School of Design in 2005. He has mounted solo exhibitions at Fitzroy Gallery in New York, CUAC in Salt Lake City, Kustera Projects in Brooklyn, and at Get This Gallery in Atlanta. He has additionally participated in numerous group exhibitions which include The Weatherspoon Art Museum, University of Albany Art Museum, University Galleries of Illinois State University, The Kentucky Museum of Arts and Crafts, Pioneer Works, and SPRING/BREAK. He has been the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pollock Krasner Fellowship at Vermont Studio Center, and a Clocktower Residency at Pioneer Works. Conrad’s art has been featured in such publications as Sculpture Magazine, Art in America, The New York Times, Artsy, Time Out NY, and The Creators Project. Drew Conrad is currently included in a two-person exhibition with Michael Genovese at Hathaway Gallery in Atlanta. He lives and works in Hudson, New York.