EDITOR’S NOTE: From time to time, Arthopper.org publishes on exhibitions that have already concluded. In this sense, our site functions much like an archive might; we produce a cache of stories about shows and events whose presence we hope to extend and lengthen, however slightly, even after the work is packed up and out of view. Earlier this fall, Megan Lykins Reich looked back at TR Ericsson’s exhibition, Crackle and Drag, on view this summer through August 23rd at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Transformer Station. Originally hailing from Northeast Ohio, Ericsson anchors much of his work to very living memories of life and loss that hover between “here,” nowhere, somewhere, and elsewhere. The catalog for Mr. Ericsson’s exhibition is available through the Cleveland Museum of Art’s online store and through Amazon.com.
Reading Susan Bartlett Robinson’s letters to her only son, artist TR Ericsson, you can almost hear her cry, pleading for help, begging for someone to stoke or extinguish the burning fires consuming her daily. Ericsson’s summer solo exhibition, Crackle and Drag, organized by Barbara Tannenbaum, CMA Curator of Photography, for the Transformer Station, chronicled the artist’s ongoing attempt to make sense of what happens when one fire goes out (Susan died by suicide in 2003) while others keep burning. Wading through the memories, the shit, the guilt, the smoke, the shadows, the stains, and the ash that remain, Ericsson creates an impressive breadth of two- and three-dimensional works. Given the difficult nature of his mother’s life, their complex, at times tense relationship, and her unexpected passing, some likely read Crackle and Drag as an exhibition about loss, about death. But really, this is a project about love, the kind of fierce, burning love between a mother and son that ignites and devours with equal fervor.
Ericsson adopted the title Crackle and Drag from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Edge,” which the American poet wrote in 1960 shortly before her own death by suicide in 1963 at the age of thirty. Ericsson found the poem as he grappled with the emotional and material weight of his mother’s and maternal grandfather’s passing. Beyond its connotations of death, the phrase was eerily relevant to Ericsson in other ways. His mother was a chain smoker; in her letters, she often spoke of sitting alone for hours at the dining room table smoking one cigarette after another: the Drag. Ericsson’s maternal grandfather, Lynn Robinson, used a wood-burning fireplace in his home as his primary heat source long after the chimney flue broke and smoke began turning every interior object black as carbon monoxide choked his lungs slowly to death: the Crackle. Beyond biology, in Ericsson’s Crackle and Drag, fire is the literal and metaphorical binding agent among these complex individuals.
Throughout the summer past, Crackle and Drag occupied the entirety of the Transformer Station. Immediately upon entry, visitors encountered Everyday Is Like Sunday (2005), a porcelain ax decorated in a blue toile pattern sourced from a shower curtain in Susan’s house. Ericsson considers it the first “serious work” he created following his mother’s death, a reference to many of his passed family members. Quietly contradictory, the work embodies several of the binaries present in the exhibition – feminine/masculine, sturdy/fragile, functional/decorative. Installed across from this piece are two works from Ericsson’s Narcissus series made from powdered graphite pushed through silkscreens. These shadowy images of Ericsson walking in a forest while talking on his cell phone suggest the ephemeral, searching, disoriented nature of this project.
The Main Gallery featured an orthodox installation of works Ericsson produced over the past fifteen years. In place of conventional labels, visitors could orient themselves with a color brochure that included a map, caption information, and brief didactic content. Here large framed works punctuated juxtaposed like-minded images, creating a loose but evasive narrative structure along the exterior walls. The north wall focused mostly on Susan through a variety of differently scaled and framed prints alongside excerpts from letters, medicinal bottles, and other ephemera. Moving around the gallery, the spare display on the west wall comprised of three works focused on TR included the unsettling image, Scarecrow, a large photograph of the young artist dressed as just such for Halloween in 1980. The south wall bridged Susan with Lynn, including the handsome black-and-white portrait of Susan called Bride (2013), an enlarged chromogenic print based on her strikingly beautiful wedding portrait from her first marriage (which lasted one month). Nearby the ground-bound sculpture, Thanksgiving Day (2008), a massive black granite slab upon which Ericsson engraved a letter from his mother detailing her crazy holiday experience with their family radiated a sense of permanence and foreboding, like a tombstone.
On the opposite entrance wall of the Main Gallery visitors encountered L.M.R. (2013), one of Ericsson’s graphite, resin, and funerary ash works that portrays a young, stern-faced Lynn, an image the artist obtained from his grandfather’s WWII merchant marine identification card. For this work, Ericsson mixed his grandfather’s ash directly into the pigment; as such, the work is, literally, made of Lynn. Sobering and transformative, the material transmutes the work into a relic. In addition to L.M.R., three other works in the exhibition also included funerary ash. I happened to visit Ericsson’s studio in 2013, a day or so after he first made the decision to create images using funerary ash. We talked about the meaning of the ash, about how long he had been “carrying” it around trying to decide what to do with it. Even then, his choice of image seemed critical, a felt need to select authentic, imperfect pictures.
These are not the only works in the show that embody. An elegant glass vessel containing the breath of the artist’s wife, Rose (Little Death) (2011) is one of several works in which the artist alludes to presence through absence. Installed salon-style on the wall behind it, numerous darkly stained objects contrast the “light” sculptural embodiment of Rose (Little Death): tools, pictures, a piggy bank, collectibles, and other ephemera all wear thick, oily, black coats, expressing life’s heaviness, its weight. A series of Ericsson’s nicotine prints completes the space—ghostly images made by lighting cigarettes beneath screenprints and staining the image into the paper through the rising smoke. Here the Drag to the objects’ Crackle is seen in stark relief, with Rose (Little Death) serving almost as a symbol of hope among loss and shadows passed.
The best of Ericsson’s project emerges when, like fire, he strikes a delicate balance between instability, beauty, chance, power, alarm, and attraction. The three strongest examples of this in Crackle and Drag appear in the catalog, film, and zines. Juxtaposing the linear narrative of Susan’s life with Ericsson’s recent bodies of work, the diaristic catalog accompanying this exhibition in particular appears to twist time. Layering and building, it offers Susan’s biography through beautiful old photos and pithy bits both sweet and sad; the reader roots for Susan and her young son as they make their way through life’s trials. Suddenly, she is gone and we encounter Ericsson’s attempts to understand her death, his grief, standing still, moving on. Then she returns again, this time more weathered, starting to unravel. And again she is gone. Circuitous yet aggregating, the catalog is an impressively accurate embodiment of the strange, contorted relationship of grief and memory.
In an adjacent gallery, the video Crackle and Drag amplifies this experience, putting the smell of smoke in your nose and the sounds of destruction in your ear. Fire – a blurry flame, perhaps the top of a candle, is the first thing we see after Plath’s poem written out in the introductory image. The fire is attended by Susan’s disembodied, raspy voice speaking of her childhood and recurring nightmares she had about a man entering her room with a gun to kill her. Throughout the film, we nearly feel the fire. In addition to the hundreds, maybe thousands of letters that Susan wrote to Ericsson, she also left him many voicemails. The artist intersperses these rambling recordings into photos and moving images – including objects on fire – that frame her trauma and their feverish relationship.
In this exhibition, the Film Zines offered the most physical and immediate sense of instability. Varying in length and focus, these 150 digital offset publications, a limited edition set, are offered for perusal below several issues of Ericsson’s Thirst Magazine, journals and a shot glass produced by the artist from 2000-2009, installed behind glass above the table. Among the most striking Thirst issues is Perfect, which features a melodramatic, black-and-white portrait of the artist on its cover. Perfect was the only work Ericsson made the year his mother died, an ironic gesture at a time when the artist was feeling the full weight and guilt of his mother’s suicide. Imperfection at its fullest. Likewise, the zines chronicle, in no particular order, moments and experiences in his family’s life, from Lynn’s birth in 1918 to Susan’s death in 2003. The viewer can pick up and look through any one at any time. They are in no order, without titles, mixtures of photographs, letters, documents, and other ephemera that simultaneously portray and abstract a Midwestern family.
The zines, like so many works in Crackle and Drag, become tangible memories, physical relics of lives lived, remembered, reconstructed, and reimagined. Viewing these images, handling these materials, listening to these voices, brings us close to the fire and lets us feel it, without being burned.
Megan Lykins Reich is Deputy Director of Program, Planning, and Engagement for MOCA Cleveland. In this role, Reich manages MOCA's strategic plan and supervises the Curatorial and Programs + Education departments, directing artist and audience engagement through exhibitions, education, public events, collaborative initiatives, media interpretation, and special projects. Reich also curates exhibitions at the museum; since starting at MOCA in 2004, she has organized twenty exhibitions including There Goes the Neighborhood, iona rozeal brown: all falls down, Duke Riley: An Invitation to Lubberland, and DIRGE: Reflections on [Life and] Death. She lives in Solon, Ohio with her husband and three children. View more articles by Megan Lykins Reich.