Wheels of Misfortune

A photographer finds inspiration in the junkyards of New Jersey

Celebration" might not be the first word one would think of when surveying Stacy Gibboni's Junkyard Essays at the Old Stone Church Gallery. But it's certainly what the artist had in mind.

A photographic survey of wrecked cars from New Jersey salvage yards, it is a collection of once-useful devices viewed at the end of their careers. A white Pontiac — a 1990s-era fossil caught between the rectangles of the 1980s and the smooth edges of the 21st century — lies compressed under garbage. An unidentifiable model, which might have been orange before it was "rust," declares in pink spray paint "No Parts."

Gibboni's series is in part a commendation to her unseen collaborators: the yard's workmen, as well as those who made the cars in the first place. "I have a great admiration for the practical acts of physical labor: construction, repair, mechanics, sewing. I find that in our contemporary times ... some of these practical acts are lost," Gibboni says, "the 'working man' essentially replaced by a machine."

Gibboni grew up in Jersey before studying painting at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Since relocating to Venice, Italy — a city where foot and boat travel are virtually the only options — she finds herself nostalgic for American cars in general and Jersey salvage yards in particular. Those featured in Essays were fixtures of Gibboni's young adulthood; she learned to drive in a junkyard, and her first husband's family owned another.

One might say the work is dedicated to the blue collars who set the stage for Gibboni's work. Aesthetically, the show is actually about exploring the topology of broken things and our curiosity at how and when they broke.

The photos were taken on a 1991 Minolta X-700, the casing of which Gibboni recovered from the trunk of a junked car. The images, originally shot on film, have been digitized for scaling purposes and printed onto aluminum.

Gibboni, who also paints nature scenes, takes an almost landscape approach to photographing the shells of cars. Many of the hulks are not so much objects in space as they are domineering geography blotting the horizon. Their images crowd out the foreground, filling more of the viewer's visual space than they ever could if they were seen in person.

The eye is led through a world of warped metal and blunted geometric forms and scaled rust, but manufactured shapes are still recognizable. This world has not always existed, but was made in a moment of catastrophe transforming a purposeful, useful — maybe even beloved — machine into junk.

Recognition of the accidents that gave various wrecks their current shapes awakens speculative, gossipy tendencies that provoke us to infer or invent our own histories. Gibboni encourages this, both passively and actively. Pictures are displayed without title cards or other contextualizing material. She presents us with a twisted grille like a mouthful of broken teeth; the appearance of a despairing face is enhanced by empty, half-crumpled headlights like swollen eyes. We are challenged by silence and namelessness to make account of it.

Gibboni further encourages the viewer by offering more character-driven, more operatic stories than many viewers might allow themselves to infer. Several works are superimposed by Plexiglas windows, on which are stamped short stories in black lettering. A browning Mercedes reifies the thrills and terrors of teenage rebellion when Gibboni pairs it with the imagined inner monologue of a teenager who steals — and then crashes — her father's car.

Gibboni took the kernel of each story from real anecdotes she heard growing up. "I first heard stories from the men working at the salvage yard. A car comes in, a story comes out," she says.

Though it looks like it could be another meditation on the crumbling Rust Belt, Junkyard Essays can be read with strange optimism. The presentation of the ruined cars as art objects affirms the value they once had and validates memories of brighter times.

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