The first time I met the artist Jordan Sullivan, I was 18 years old. I was practicing viola in the music school at the University of Michigan, where I did my undergrad, when a tall, reedy young man knocked on my door. His band was looking for a violist; would I want to play with them? Would I! We did one recording, had some random run-ins on campus in the next four years, and then went our separate ways. I went to graduate school for a writing program; he traveled across the U.S. making sculptures, collaging, and taking photographs, documenting his life and the myriad friends, strangers and lovers who passed through.
I’m reminiscing partly because Sullivan’s work deals with memory, and our desire to preserve, manipulate and enshrine the past. He shows me a photograph, a hazy black-and-white portrait of a nude torso, face obscured by a tangle of black hair, which he’s attached to a piece of leather and surrounded with porcupine quills. “It’s part of a series called ‘protected memories,’” he says. “I wanted to create the illusion that something that was actually gone was not, that I could actually protect something like that, or hold onto it indefinitely.”
While Sullivan’s previous work stems mostly from his own experiences—romantic Americana-inflected photos and collages of open roads, small towns, and wandering eccentrics—he’s gone deeper into the past for his latest show, Natural History, which opens tonight at New York City’s Underline Gallery. Natural History is a portrait of the artist through the lives of his grandparents, who met during World War II (His grandfather fought in the war; his grandmother was a nurse.). “I had never really spent much time with my grandparents,” says Sullivan, who grew up in Livonia, Michigan. “But last year I moved to Texas [where they lived] and saw them everyday. So I was spending a lot of time with them and got to know them more. When I was approached to do this show, my grandfather had just passed away, so they’re whole history was in my
Memory Study II (Landscape Collages): Salvaged photographs on paper torn from Sullivan’s personal book collection 30”x37” (2012). Photo: Underline Gallery
One of the pieces in Natural History is a literal shrine to his grandfather, a photo of him in his uniform, surrounded by hundreds of dried flowers in a glass case. Others deal with the World War II experience more broadly: a canvas rucksack (found on eBay) screenprinted with vintage photos of POWs or delicate pieces of parachute silk with images of bombings. The most powerful of these World War II works, however, are images of Hitler’s bombed house, which Sullivan’s grandmother had taken with her Polaroid when she was stationed around there immediately after the war. Sullivan has blown up the black-and-white photos, giving them an eerie, other-worldly feel, and drawn and collaged over them, using ash and dust. “I wanted to create something that was like at one preserving something but also wanting to destroy it,” he says. One of the four photographs has a quote written in ash over it: “Is it better to remember, better to forget, better to forgive or never lived at all?”
Natural History also incorporates artifacts from Sullivan’s own life: burned reels of band demos or “confessions,” a photo of his childhood home in Michigan, these massive circular sculptures made with porcupine quills, which he acquired from “some hillbillies in Florida.” Some of it is even more abstract, such as his collages made of fragments of photographs pieced together rather haphazardly, like a composite dream or memory, or an attempt to reconstruct an ideal. Yet, the presence of these heavier WWII memories—which are also scrambled and manipulated in their way—doesn’t trivialize these more humble remnants of Sullivan’s life; indeed they make them richer.
“Memory has been in my work since I a teenager,” says Sullivan. “I’ve always been obsessed with happens to your memories, why you remember what you remember—everything about it always fascinated me.”
“I don’t want to say that this stuff is like an obsession with myself or my own history,” he adds. “But it’s just this kind of broader idea of remembering is important. I hope it ends up being—even though it stems from my own experiences—I hope it ends up becoming something more universal.”