By Maureen Korp
Jim Arendt’s new exhibition at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum is startling at first sight, even scary. Upon entering the exhibition on the main floor, the first work the visitor is likely to see are the artist’s sculptures. Ghouls. Standing to the left and the right, tall, grey ghouls. Each wraith is a slender figure, fabricated in shards of denim. All stand straight with massive, frightening spillage falling from their mouths.
Straight ahead, mounted on the far wall and spilling onto the floor, is a large flying motif, not unlike an airman’s wings. Walk a bit closer, and the viewer will see its “wings” are formed of a doubled figure, a recumbent woman, holding a can aloft. She is supported by a column labeled “PURE.” That is a lie. The water she is drinking is not safe to drink. Her name is Adrienne. The artist knows her, and the town where she lives—Flint, Michigan, site of one of the worst lead poisonings of our time, and still unresolved.
Jim Arendt grew up on a small farm outside Flint, Michigan. Today he is a professor of visual arts in the United States at Coastal Carolina University, South Carolina. His work has been shown internationally, from Azerbaijan to Australia, from Korea to Ontario, throughout the United States, and in Europe, too. This is his first exhibition in Almonte.
On the walls of the exhibition are more than 15 portraits, each one full-size, each a portrait of someone we are likely to know, or have known, at some time in our own lives. “Mike,” 2011, for example, is a seated figure, a man without his child. Once a child sat in his lap, now no longer. We can see his loss. Did the mother take the child away? Did the child grow up and leave town? To the left of “Mike,” 2011, is another image, that of a seated child–“Mackenzie,” 2012. She is just the right size to sit in Mike’s lap.
Nearby, the artist’s portrait of “Meghan,” 2012, depicts a figure standing tall, a young woman larger-than-life. Her shirt is fashioned of denim, one emblazoned with rivets and zippers. Her story? Not hard to imagine what it might be. She is armoured, her stance firm, determined.
“Catherine,” 2015, however, is another story. We see here the portrait of a standing woman, also larger-than-life. She appears to be a harried, stressed individual with too many responsibilities and too few resources. How often have we ourselves mumbled: “I cannot be in two places at once!”
The artist’s medium is denim, old worn bits and pieces of well-worn denim garments people have given him. Jim Arendt uses this material to create insightful portraits–stories of workers, workers left behind when their work no longer matters. Then what?
Many of the people who are the subjects of the artist’s work are still living, but not all. “Robs: Permanent Vacation,” 2015, for example, presents the doubled image of a man wearing sunglasses, his hands folded contentedly over his belly. Rob floats on a pond somewhere, forwards and backwards, one head to the right, the other to the left. Now stand back and look at the outline of the whole. The figure’s doubled floating image takes on another shape—that of human lungs. “Robs: Permanent Vacation” is almost certainly the tale of lungs filling with the waters of mesothelioma.
In his work, Jim Arendt intends the viewer to see the importance of “…making things last as long as possible so that things have value.” His scary sculptures have stories to tell us, too. They stand there silent, yet their words, their stories, are spilling from their mouths. We who are still living can see the stories in Arendt’s work. Take the children with you to the exhibition, and tell them your stories, too.
“Those of Us Still Living” is well titled. The exhibition was opened Saturday, July 13, with remarks by Christa Lowry, Mayor of Mississippi Mills, and Michael Rikley-Lancaster, Executive Director/ Curator of MVTM. Both noted the importance of the worker in the history of Almonte’s textile industry and the artist’s own history as someone who grew up outside Flint, Michigan, where 80, 000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years.
“Those of Us Still Living” continues until September 14 at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum, 3 Rosamond Street E., Almonte. Jim Arendt will be returning to Almonte in September to conduct a textile arts workshop. For more information, contact MVTM, telephone 613-256-3754. firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos courtesy of Jim Arendt