Laurie Parsons show "A Body of Work 1987" at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach
Mönchengladbach is an ugly, mid-sized city in the Rhineland. The summer walk from the train station to Museum Abteiberg skirts a giant mall where ugly people eat ugly food al fresco. They side-eye me as I pass, en route to the first and only Laurie Parsons exhibition of my adult life, and I wonder if other pilgrims have felt so out of place on this journey before.
Parsons is an American social worker for the mentally ill and homeless, but from 1987 to 1994, she was a contemporary artist whose exhibitions have left a lasting impact on adherents to the cult of refusal. During this time, she repeatedly explored social dynamics; during a group show at Andrea Rosen in 1990/91, she worked as a gallery assistant and every week, for the duration of an exhibition at Le Consortium, Dijon (1992), she sent flowers to the administrator overseeing the show’s operations. “A Body of Work 1987” presents a group of pieces first exhibited in two parts, at Lorence-Monk Gallery, New York, in 1988 and at Galerie Rolf Ricke, Cologne, in 1989, and restaging it now gives us a modest, yet compelling model for meaning making, while simultaneously suggesting the limitations of what art can actually do, in and for the rest of the world.
"In representing the discarded, Parsons imbues each with aura, energy, tenderness, and care"
In a gallery flooded with natural light on the top floor of the museum sits Parsons’s exhibition. Installed according to her detailed instructions, written in 1989, it contains twenty-nine pieces, all from 1987, specifically ordered, mostly resting on the floor or leaning against the wall, following the edges of the room. The objects were taken from the street and into Parsons’s New Jersey studio, so titles like yellow rope, suitcase, and tree stump directly identify, while others, like preacher’s rock (a chunk of concrete) and V (a metal bed frame), complicate the inventory. Pieces titled black carrier, broken container, and twin things float somewhere between the descriptive and the poetic, emphasising the centrality of choice. First picked (up) off the streets, then placed individually (some “carefully”, others “casually”, or simply “plumped down”), named, and arranged together, each form loses its autonomy as a readymade in preference to the specifically positioned, consummate body of work.
Parsons’s works, many of them fragile, strike a similar balance – supple, dynamic, intimate. Individually, they often exaggerate the physiological: the wood works are literal limbs; twisted, tangled, and interlaced ropes are intestinal; there are cushions, a hand-cart, a bed frame, an umbrella. Her materials are traces of human contact, showing traces of use, production, consumption, and dismissal, but the subject of who and what are being used is confused due to their new sensualities: In representing the discarded, Parsons imbues each with aura, energy, tenderness, and care. Viewing the show, I recall the figure of a favourite lover, where all the parts, even if ugly and awkward, fit together perfectly in some delicate tension.
This sense of care – compassion, generosity, and humility – was consistent throughout her career and is key in distinguishing Parsons from others in the genre of social practice. Social practice of the last two decades often carelessly falls into the realm of spectacle, yet for Parsons, the event or occasion was auxiliary, only an opportunity for action and never the final work (later in her career she even refused to have her name listed in group shows). “A Body of Work”, which is ultimately about recovery, saving objects just before they are lost forever, was the beginning of her personal progression, preparing her to leave the art world and instead focus on helping people in need.
"A Body of Work 1987"
15 April 15 – 8 September
ADAM STAMP is an Artist based in Los Angeles, California
– This text appears in Spike Art Quarterly #57. You can buy it in our online shop –