"The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone,
She is used to this sort of thing,
Her blacks crackle and drag."
— "Edge" by Sylvia Plath
These final, abstract lines from one of Plath's last poems inspired the title of T.R. Ericsson's current solo exhibition at the Transformer Station in Hingetown. Crackle and Drag continues Ericsson's ongoing exploration into his personal family history following the suicide of his mother, Susan Ericsson, at 57. Plath also took her own life, and "Edge" was one of the last works she completed before her death.
The exhibition takes effort on the part of the visitor; it is not necessarily an entertaining or passive viewing experience. Ericsson's 45-minute film is sure to leave you feeling like someone punched you in the gut. It might even make you cry.
So why even go? Because it's real —beautifully, devastatingly real.
Crackle and Drag is divided into two rooms. While there is no fixed starting point, we recommend you begin with the film. It gives the rest of the exhibition incredible context, and aids the viewer through some of the less immediately accessible work in the main gallery space.
The film's audio includes Susan Ericsson's own voice, through recordings and voicemails, enhanced with music, noises and sound effects. The video's imagery features family snapshots, home movies, letters and various recent black-and-white footage, including scenes of burning family photos, New York City and Willoughby (Yeah, that Willoughby) — described by Ericsson's mother as "Hicksville, USA," and where she tragically took her own life in 2003. It's hard to argue with her description. After all, it's 2015 and their mascot is a Confederate soldier. (I attended South High School from 1999 to 2003, before moving to Mentor prior to my senior year.)
The film's footage of burning photos alludes to both the fleeting nature of life itself and the deteriorating condition of this multigenerational family archive. The scenes of New York City create a dynamic portrait of the iconic urban environment that Ericsson found himself immersed in during the end of his mother's tragic life.
Through the imagery and Susan Ericsson's own words, the film creates a personal connection between the viewer and the artist's family. The film creates a mood more than a narrative. Despite this ambiguity, the film evokes clear emotions and establishes a sense of familiarity.
As the film progresses and his mother's mental decline becomes more evident, the film itself becomes erratic as well. The cinematography rivals anything in theaters. It's an emotional journey that both hurts and heals. By the end, Ericsson creates an atmosphere of emotions that manifest the feelings of the artist in the viewer. When it's over, you'll probably be reaching for your phone to call your own mother.
As you continue through the exhibition, the various objects have an increased meaning. This is additionally emphasized through the enlargement of many family photos. Originally the size of standard snapshots, Ericsson has enlarged these images to bigger than the televisions in most middle class households. By enlarging these photographs and placing them in the "white cube" setting of the Transformer Station, Ericsson recontextualizes the imagery from mundane to extraordinary.
The exhibition's signature image, used in promotion of the show, is a photo of Ericsson's mother lying on a couch with two cats on her legs, an ashtray on her sternum, a cigarette in hand and a welcoming and engaging smile on her face. The "crackle and drag" of her cigarette is almost audible as the voice from the film continues to haunt the viewer through the exhibition.
Another highlight is the 150-issue boxed set of Ericsson's 'zine Thirst. Sitting inconspicuously atop a table in the middle of the exhibition space, the set may be easily looked over. However, the engaged viewer is rewarded with hundreds more images of family photos, letters and sentimental material to supplement the rest of the exhibition. Through these issues, the true scope of the family's archive becomes much more apparent. Editions of the boxed set of Thirst are available at the Transformer Station and the Cleveland Museum of Art's gift shop.
The exhibition also includes a section with a number of objects and images hung salon style. Individually and collectively, these objects encourage the viewer to create a narrative around their very existence. The eclectic nature of these works is a testament to the artist's ability to select his material and process based on each work's conceptual intention.
Two specific examples of this polarization in media and process are Ericsson's nicotine "drawings" and a 700-pound slab of black granite, titled "Thanksgiving Day." The nicotine "drawings" are created using silkscreens to filter cigarette smoke onto paper. The results are haunting images resembling faded photographs. Since their creation in 2008, these works have and will continue to grow fainter, like the family archive and the artist's own memories.
In contrast, "Thanksgiving Day" is capable of lasting for centuries. The face of this monumental slab of granite is etched with a letter from Ericsson's mother, recounting, in detail, the challenges of the family's Thanksgiving dinner in 1992. The work is reminiscent of a national memorial, and adds a great deal of weight to a hastily written letter between mother and son. The note ends with a mother's advice to her child: "Be happy and carefree forever. Do it your way and tell the rest to shut up."
Happy and carefree may not be the best two words to describe Crackle and Drag, but it is clear that Ericsson has done things his own way. Stop by the Transformer Station before Sunday, August 23, to see for yourself.
Additional viewing hours are Wednesdays and Fridays, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursdays noon to 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.