by scarlet cheng


“Expression and delight in a beautiful or lovely thing is no less attained by sadness of its loss, than gladness of its presence. Art is often tragic or pensive; but all art is praise.”

—John Ruskin

The past is another country, to which we repeatedly attempt to return. In that country we left happy experiences, or at least vivid ones that we find hard to shake; we left people who shaped our lives and people we loved. We return to that country in old objects and keepsakes, in pictures and photographs-these are the archaeological remains of another day-and in our memory.

Jane Brucker sifts through the archaeological layers of her own past, literally finding and retrieving things that have been left behind by her grandparents and parents. She then lovingly re-uses them in her artwork, a way of remembering and of honoring the past. In re-working and re-framing these objects, she also suggests our own reconstruction and reconfiguration of memory.

Take the recombination of her grandmother’s lipstick cases with kitchen tools in her Domestic Tools series. One metallic case is jammed onto the handle of a cork puller, another sutured to a wooden bar. The ends of the shiny lipstick cases retain their original jewelry-like finial, which makes the contrast between the two halves even more dramatic. These are two realms of the feminine-the glamorous collides with the grind of daily routine, the decorative with the utilitarian.

In Ironing Things Out, an old wooden ironing table (from her great-grandmother) becomes the display platform for two sets of dentures (from her father) which have been recast in bronze. The upper teeth are suspended from arced wires, hovering over the lower ones. Here the ironing board with its sturdy tripod base and cantilevered platform has become heroically architectural, no longer a domestic drone; the enshrined teeth are an eerie reminder of our own mortality. In the Memorial Project, the artist has framed fragments of clothing-perhaps our most intimate possessions-both from those she has known, as well as from strangers. The series began shortly after the death of her father in 1999. When Brucker and her mother were looking through his clothing, it seemed hard to part with them, so the artist had an idea. She took several shirts back to her studio, and then selected sections of them, which she framed on canvas stretchers. Later, her mother's friends asked if she could do the same for them-for clothing left behind by their departed ones. Thus, the seed for an art project was planted, and Brucker eventually collected old clothing from various sources to create over 300 framed pieces. From those she has assembled an all-white series, numbering some 100, which she has displayed in a gallery across from the colored pieces, and sometimes by themselves.

There is something about clothing, worn next to the body, the carapace of the human form, which is like a second skin. It reflects the choice of the wearer, and in that stubborn primitive part of our brain, we often feel that clothing-and indeed, all personal possessions held closely or used often-retain the spirit of the possessor. Brucker pays homage to those who once inhabited these shirts, jackets, slacks and dresses; the viewer conjures up who they might have been through these fragments. She also pays homage to the arts of textile and of tailoring in this ongoing project, made up of intimately-sized works, which encourages us to focus on exquisite details of pattern and texture, construction and accessory. Awareness of the importance of what has been called the “domestic arts” began with such artists as Judy Chicago, Miriam Schapiro and Betye Saar, and continues to such recent exhibitions as New York’s Museum of Arts and Design “Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting” and “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery.”

How to characterize Brucker’s work? It incorporates found object, assemblage, sculpture, bronze casting, sewing. To me it has a kind of postmodern Victorian quality. In its sparseness and stark use of white, in its conceptual rigor, it is very contemporary in tone. In its attention to detail, to a feminine sensibility, and in its incorporation of other people’s clothing and possessions, it recalls the Victorian obsession with keepsakes. Of course, what they kept-a lock of hair, a piece of old lace made by an aunt, a photograph inserted into a locket-was directly related to a relative or close friend. Brucker’s art shares the memorializing process, but in some work she includes belongings both from those she knew and from strangers. She taps into a universal nostalgia for the past and a shared instinct for remembrance.

To remember is to recall a person or thing that is lost or a moment that has passed. In remembering, we are trying to recover that person, that thing, that moment-or perhaps the feelings we’ve attached to them. At the same time, these works nudge us towards reinterpretation. For in truth we cannot return to the past, we may be able to travel through it in our minds, and finally reclaim it when we allow ourselves to recognize, appreciate or comprehend some part of it that eluded us then.

SCARLET CHENG is an arts writer who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Art Ltd., Artillery, and other publications; she also teaches film history at Otis College of Art and Design.