Last Words: TR Ericsson: Crackle and Drag, at Transformer Station
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
These partial, broken images at the end of Sylvia Plath’s final poem “Edge,” written shortly before the poet’s suicide in 1963, are a patchwork of verbal shadows and flat, wounding sounds. Knowing what we do about the artist and her history, the poem can read like a suicide note. Her message offers no rationale or regret, however: it summons death, as if by name. Defying easy ideas about self-pity or mental illness, Plath’s words flash a hint of hidden powers, at work behind the scenes of consciousness and the commonplace.
Tom Ericsson first heard the words “crackle and drag” as part of a song of the same name based on Plath’s poem by alt-rocker / Replacements front man Paul Westerberg, on the solo album “Come Feel Me Tremble.” The origin of the phrase, Plath’s “Edge” was a revelation to Ericsson, coming at just the right time to serve as an organizing principle for the mortality-centered works he was making. In a book published by the Cleveland Museum of Art to accompany his upcoming solo show at The Transformer Station, Ericsson remarks, “I instantly knew I had found a way to contextualize all the things I was doing around my mother’s death.”
Many of the diverse objects and projects he had made over a decade or more, beginning several years before Susan Ericsson’s 2003 death at the family home in Willoughby, Ohio were reactions to a spate of unexpected, emotionally wrenching early deaths that kept the family reeling as Tom made his way through his late twenties. But, as he writes, “The wheels really came off when my mother died.” Ericsson stopped working altogether for a while; he was just thirty years old.
Working mainly out of his studio in Brooklyn, New York, Ericsson has invented a range of works in a number of mediums, many of which are on exhibit at The Transformer Station. It’s important that these aren’t only objects, but in a crucial way are also experiments, proposals for measuring subtle, otherwise inexpressible psychic attributes — the volume and tension of common sorrow, for a start, and the persistent magnetic fields of family life. They include the 150 issues of a ‘zine named “Thirst” (available in a box set at CMA’s shop), a porcelain axe sardonically titled “Every day is like Sunday,” and series of large screen prints made with cigarette smoke and graphite.
In aggregate these works have attracted national attention over the past decade or so. The Cleveland Museum of Art bought two of the large-scale graphite “drawings” from the “Étant Donnés” series. (Tom’s wife Rose posed for these rich woodland scenes, which from a process point of view are like handmade photographs. While they are an homage to Marcel Duchamp as their title indicates, they’re also plainly about Susan’s death.) Meanwhile, the Progressive Insurance Collection commissioned several major pieces. In 2008 a uniquely conceived two-part show (mounted at his Cleveland gallery, Shaheen Contemporary, and at the Cleveland Sculpture Center) introduced Susan’s death to local audiences — if somewhat obliquely. The 70-inch tall print/drawings at Shaheen’s showed Tom dressed as if for a funeral, walking in the woods and talking on his cell phone; at the Sculpture Center a five foot square polished black marble square was on display on the gallery floor. Chiseled with the text of a postcard sent by his mother in the early 1990’s in the years after he graduated from CIA and moved to New York, it described a dismal family Thanksgiving, ending defiantly: “Be happy and carefree forever – Do it your way and tell the rest to shut up. Love Always.”
Perhaps the most important of Ericsson’s new works is the book that accompanies the exhibit. It is both an account of his art during this period and a chronicle of his mother’s life. That part is not always a pretty picture. But Ericsson’s blemish-ridden portrait of Susan and the family, including himself, mainly demonstrates the truth that there is a general lack of innocence anywhere among human beings. Lies and selfishness make things harder, and there are innate insufficiencies and impossibilities, the deeper forces of reality’s grain laid down in the bedrock of our most intractable problems. Ericsson hints at all of this. His methods are designed to filter some of the real loving that people do back out of the dust, refined from the residue and plain filth left behind – like the decades of nicotine that soaked into the wallpaper of his mother’s house, or the thick black soot that accumulated in his grandfather’s book-filled house, spreading from the non-stop wood fire in his fireplace. To this end he does not flinch, reporting his mother’s lifelong struggles with alcoholism, depression, and MS, recording the ugliness but also making it possible for other, more beautiful things to be understood.
Another strong, particularly revealing new work is Ericsson’s first film, titled “Memorial Day.” About ten minutes long, it begins with a black screen, and the piercing beeps of numbers being dialed — an old answering machine tape; there’s Tom’s “Leave a message,” then Susan’s (she calls herself “Em” here) brash, whining voice. She’s complaining about a tooth that broke off, lamenting the way she looks and the way she feels with her MS. She’s at the far side of reasonably drunk. The screen shows black and white scenes filmed from a moving car, crossing the George Washington Bridge toward Fort Lee. Tom is headed home. Buildings give way to trees, the masses of the darkening Pennsylvania landscape scud past; and the phone calls keep coming. Em is getting drunker as Interstate 80 tightens toward Ohio. She sobs, “Nobody cares about me, nobody. Oh, I’m so unhappy.” Ponderous calliope-type music cranks up, as at an old carousel or behind a Tom Waits lyric. A few close-ups of Polaroid photographs scroll into view, giving the film its only dashes of color – Tom as a child, in costume with a fake mustache and an AC/DC t-shirt, Susan as a pretty young woman, talking on a white phone. Then it’s over, the phone clicks down on the receiver; rapid off-the-hook noises soon stop, too.
Ericsson doesn’t pull any punches, but in fact his works are both elegant and familiar. Who doesn’t have boxes of old Polaroids and painful memories, who doesn’t measure life and love by mom and dad, by their faults and triviality and absolute necessity? There is the clear fact, underlying all the bad news at Crackle and Drag, that this mother and son loved one another. The crackle and drag of death is, among other things, the noise made by joy, persisting deep beneath life’s disappointments.
TR Ericsson: Crackle and Drag
May 23 0 August 22, 2015
Cleveland Museum of Art at Transformer Station
1460 West 29 Street
Cleveland, OH 44113