Theda Sandiford’s ’emotional baggage carts’ are highlights of her ‘Joyful Resistance’ show

theda sandiford review

Theda Sandiford’s “Joyful Resistance” exhibition in Bedminster features shopping cart sculptures such as these.

Zip ties have many uses. They’re handy in construction, or gardening, or for tethering together cardboard displays in the grocery store. They make decent substitute shoelaces if your sneakers are falling apart. And policemen short of metal handcuffs sometimes apply zip ties to the wrists of the recalcitrant. If you were a participant in any of the mass protests of 2020 and 2021, you may have personal experience of this practice. You may have felt the bite of flexi-cuffs on your bare arms.

Theda Sandiford makes effective use of zip ties, too. Her sculptures wouldn’t be the same without them. She doesn’t necessarily use them to tether together her strands of bottlecaps, her knots of yarn and rope, her torn-up fishing nets, her weathered old shoes, wire and other stuff retrieved from the trash. Often, the zip ties there to provide texture and color, and to evoke the scratchiness of industrial plastic. Cut in half and packed close together, they attain the forgotten-futuristic quality of Astroturf; festooned on a pole, they evoke the scrubbers used by menial laborers; displayed by the hundreds and apprehended at a distance, they resemble giant porcupines under red alert.

Sandiford’s zip tie agglomerations are redolent of hard and unforgiving work. They hint at the cruelty of policing, the brittleness of interpersonal connections, the deep wounds borne by African Americans, and the fundamental discomfort of modern life.

Theda Sandiford’s “Lowrider Mud Cloth.”

They also suggest sweat. Affixing hundreds of slashed zip ties to the thin metal bars of a cart or a ladder requires muscle — more muscle than painting brushstrokes or knitting scarves requires. “Joyful Resistance,” a solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster, is not the sort of experimental modern art show that would induce a visitor to wonder if her unschooled child could make something similar. Everything here looks tough: tough to do, tough to assemble, tough to touch. Sandiford’s impressively long strings of bottlecaps and polyurethane ropes, hung in shaggy bunches, may be reminiscent of dreadlocked hair, but they don’t have the soft, yielding quality of a bushy ‘do. The five fabrications on the wall resemble whips, complete with barbs that might be applied by a slavemaster to human skin. And you are best advised not to toss anything too perishable into her aggressively redecorated shopping trolleys.

These are Sandiford’s “emotional baggage carts” (the Jersey City-based artist is a punster and a well-established weaver of language). She has parked several of them on the wooden floors of the CCA, but many others exist, scattered across the museums and galleries of New Jersey. The sculptor uses the steel bars of the shopping carts as a latticework to attach strips of fabric, puffs of yarn and clutches of beads, worn-out bicycle reflectors, and zip tie bristles, scouring the air in all directions. Her “Appropriation Mud Cloth Baggage Cart” is wrapped in African fabric and decked with brown thread that dangles like the fronds of a grass skirt. Parachute cord is wrapped around the bars near the wheels of the trolley. Its neighbor, which spits snake-tongues of cut zip ties, has had its frame covered tightly in a spiral of bright chartreuse.

Shrewdly, Sandiford has chosen to retrofit an object that most people have a long and complicated emotional relationship with. Everyone has pushed a shopping cart through a grocery, perhaps struggling with an errant wheel, worried about navigating it through tight aisles without upsetting the applesauce. Many of us have early childhood memories of riding in the shopping trolley, stashed there like a loaf of Wonder bread, pushed, perhaps, by a parent. Anyone raised in New Jersey has seen abandoned shopping carts, tossed behind stores or in vacant lots, pulverized by the wind and rain, mangled by hands less gentle Sandiford’s.

These distressed shopping carts carry plenty of meaning: They represent the breakdown of domesticity, impoverishment, the decay of the city and the systems that deliver food to hungry people, the dissolution of trust between the providing parent and needy child. Sandiford is working with all of that, busily surfacing all of the deep symbolism. She’s turned these abandoned trolleys into receptacles of anguish — stocked to overflow with memories and slights, each razor-cut edge of a zip tie warning the careless and insensitive to step back.

Debra Samdperil’s “Untitled.”

Sandiford is one of four exhibitors who have mounted spiky solo shows in the bright, airy space in the middle of Pluckemin Park in Somerset County.

On the second floor, photographer and filmmaker Lily Madeleine Colman has installed a frank, discontented, occasionally brutal visual essay about a divorce and an accompanying reclamation of identity. In a few of the images, she has stitched red thread over the face of her former partner: a violent scribble, an expression of bloody pain and a tether that suggests, to me at least, that she may not be as free from the relationship as she believes she is.

Boston artist Debra Samdperil‘s engrossing white and gray canvases, stained with sooty charcoal, ink and streaks of gesso, always seem to have been partially erased. Faces struggle through the mist, but all form seems to be unraveling in a blizzard of white.

Jennifer Croson’s multimedia works play with identity and the mutability of the body, too. Atop her amalgams of stitched fabric, acrylic paint, bunched cotton and colored pencil, she tucks images of people, generally female, at weird angles that upend traditional perspective.

These are all works heavy with distortion and disquiet, and they’ve all got plenty to say. But Colman, Samdperil and Croson don’t get to their meaning as efficiently or ruthlessly as Sandiford does. The address to the audience is not as plain, or as loud, or as clearly spoken.

Sandiford’s pieces are so big and so bossy that it’s unusual to find a gallerist willing to give the viewer this many of them at once. To its credit, the CCA is inviting visitors to step into a world defined by the sculptor’s obsessions and fraught interactions with her peers, and it’s more than a little destabilizing.

If you can stand up to it, and you don’t get rolled by the furious force of these shopping carts, you’ll find an experience not unlike that of the excellent Carlos Villa show that just closed at Newark Museum. Like Villa, Sandiford draws on her heritage and the emotional experience of discrimination to make large, gutsy pieces suggestive of non-Western traditions. Villa’s work was, ultimately, an expression of a personal vision — the chronicle of one individual’s struggle, told in a visual language of his own invention — and that’s true for Sandiford, too.

Because she matches her defensiveness with honesty and a determination to transcend despair, her work never feels self-indulgent. The American social fabric may be hopelessly torn. There really may be nothing for us to do but tear it into strips, make it as pretty as we can, toss it in our carts, and carry on.

“Joyful Resistance” by Theda Sandiford will be on view at the Center for Contemporary Art in Bedminster until June 4. The CCA is open Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays from 9 a.m to 3 p.m. Sandiford will host workshops at the Center at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. May 21. Visit ccabedminster.org.

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