The next time you clean out the lint tray in your spin dryer, resist the impulse to wad the lint into a ball and throw it away. Instead, keeping the lint intact, lay it on a flat surface. Repeat this process for about a year until the oblongs come to resemble counterpanes in an eighteenth century orphanage or horse blankets. Now carefully fold them as if they were really were counterpanes or horse blankets. Admire your work and marvel at the striations of color — all the greys and mauves and bluish hues. Think about how many of the acts we perform thoughtlessly, day after day, and to which we ascribe little value, are in themselves art and so too — in the right hands — are the detritus of our works and day, and then you’ll begin to understand the art of Carolyn Conrad. “When I pulled the material from the trap, the fibers looked so beautiful to me,” says Conrad from her studio. “The material was so fragile and delicate, well, I thought it deserved our attention.”
The dryer lint assemblages fit into the larger framework of Conrad’s decades-long inquiry into domestic spaces and the nature of home. Ongoing work in that vein includes her moody images of what appear to be true-to-scale houses in fields. In fact, Conrad constructed, arranged, and photographed every element in the picture, from the 5 x 8 houses that she makes out of clay and laminated balsa or bass wood to the heavy canvas fabric that she dyes and re-dyes in shades of storm-light-grey to approximate the sky. Once assembled on a table in her studio, she photographs the scene and prints it on archival paper.
The wooden house series evolved organically, in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “I felt I needed to make more contact with family,” Conrad recalls, “in a personal way.” And so, tentatively — she wasn’t a skilled photographer at the time — she began to photograph the clay figures, busts, and ordinary objects in her studio. “At first I was just playing around,” she says. “But once I got going, I thought, ‘Goodness, maybe I can do something serious with this.’”
That “something serious” speaks of our vanishing rural landscapes, atomized societies, and increasingly hermetic notions of home. It’s no coincidence that Conrad, who did graduate work in fine arts at New York University, held a day job for over a decade in the communications department of an international architecture firm. Hence, dealing with elevation plans and “very pared down structural forms” are second nature to her.
For all the simplicity of her work, its gestation, Conrad says, is long. “I get excited about a concept or a process, but when I try to execute it, I’m usually disappointed. So the initial failure forces me to go in an unexpected direction. My pieces have a formal quality, they do, but there’s a lot of accident along the way.”