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Memory meets fantasy: Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett (2000, detail).

That ’70s Show

By Nadine Wasserman

Keith Edmier 1991-2007

CCS Bard, through Feb. 3

In his seminal work A La Recherché du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust clings to memory in an effort to grapple with his own mortality. Late in this hefty tome, Proust writes: “It is, indeed, alluring, this task of re-creating the true life and reviving the youthful freshness of our impressions, but it calls for courage of every sort—even sentimental—for it means, first of all, giving up our dearest illusions, ceasing to believe in the objectivity of what we ourselves built up.”

This statement sums up much of the work in the exhibition Keith Edmier 1991-2007, the most comprehensive show of the Chicago-born artist’s work to date, on view now at the Center for Curatorial Studies galleries at Bard College.

The signature piece in this exhibition is the installation Bremen Towne. In it Edmier pieced together, from photographs, floor plans, and his memory, a full-scale replica of the main interior rooms of his childhood home in a Chicago suburb. Like Proust, Edmier endeavors to examine the curious inner workings of memory. Bremen Towne captures Edmier’s home as it would have looked when his family moved into it in 1971. It represents the earliest influence on his personal aesthetics. The furnishings are limited to a few key pieces so that the installation ultimately functions as a portrait of 1970s Americana.

The 1970s are a tool Edmier uses to conflate his childhood self with his adult self and explore the intersections between the personal and pop culture. Two iconic figures of the era, Evel Knievel and Farrah Fawcett, figure prominently in a number of works. Since much of Edmier’s work, like Proust, grapples with memory and mortality, Evel Knievel, having survived numerous spectacular crashes over the course of his daredevil career, stands as a perfect emblem for cheating death. In Evel Knievel (1974, 1996), Edmier photographed the fully costumed stunt man more than 20 years after his notorious failed attempt to jump across the Snake River Canyon. Knievel, who prior to the jump said, “dying is a part of living, and while I’m alive I’m going to live it to the hilt,” is here writ large as if still in his heyday. While young boys of the era may have fantasized about pursuing such manly feats, they were also fantasizing about the sex symbol Farrah Fawcett, whose famed swimsuit poster adorned the walls of many a boy’s bedroom.

Edmier actually collaborated with Fawcett, who is also an artist, on a number of works. Keith Edmier and Farrah Fawcett is composed of two life-size nude sculptures, one in bronze of an idealized Edmier made by Fawcett and the other in marble of an idealized reclining Fawcett made by Edmier. This work probes the very nature of artist and muse and considers how memory and fantasy shift in startling ways. Another piece that challenges expectations is The Space Between You and Me. In this close-cropped photograph, Fawcett leans her forehead against Edmier’s, whose eyes are closed. At first reading it appears to be an amorous gesture. On closer inspection, Fawcett’s distraught expression and Edmier’s pale appearance are more suggestive of Mary cradling a lifeless Jesus.

While Edmier’s celebrity works explore both nostalgia and pop culture, he also uses figures from his own personal history to explore similar themes. Beverly Edmier, 1967 is a life-size sculptural portrait of the artist’s mother gazing tenderly at her pregnant belly. The fetus, which is visible inside, is Edmier himself. Edmier has clothed his mother in a pink suit that resembles the one worn by Jackie Kennedy on the day of JFK’s assassination. Nearby in the gallery is another reference to that fateful day, called A Dozen Roses, that resembles the bouquet carried by the first lady. This tragic event was one of the defining “where were you” moments for his parents’ generation, just as the assassination of John Lennon was for Edmier’s generation. The sculpture Frank Veteran, 1980 contains a cassette player in a Plexiglas vitrine that plays an audio recording of the Chief Surgical Resident at Roosevelt Hospital recalling the events that took place once Lennon was brought in after being shot. At one point, Veteran describes the Adidas sneakers he was wearing and how after the resuscitation effort he noticed Lennon’s blood on them. These shoes are re-created by Edmier in the sculpture Morning.

While much of Edmier’s work explores the murky boundaries between collective and personal memory, he also has made a body of work that is influenced by the natural world and, no doubt, by his experience working with special effects. His artificial plants are another route to exploring mortality and sexuality. These monumental yet clearly artificial flora are a counterpart to his figurative icons. The best of them perfectly blend uncorrupted wonderment with a sense of trepidation. Victoria Regia (First Night Bloom) and Victoria Regia (Second Night Bloom) are colossal water plants that dwarf the viewer. Rather than look down upon delicate and sentimental lily pads, the viewer sees them from below as if from a tadpole’s view. Despite their monumental stature, these plants retain their delicacy and underscore the bittersweet mood of the exhibition.

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