In January I went to White Columns to see, “Looking Back,” an exhibit surveying artwork shown in New York in 2010, curated by Bob Nickas. The work was a mix of mostly New York-based artists, young and old, living and dead. One piece that caught my attention was by Candy Jernigan:

Candy Jernigan, Found Dope: Part II, 1986 (detail)
Found objects on paper 28 in. x 39 in.

Broken bits of used crack vials are pasted into into grid formation on a large poster, sealed behind glass, like the butterflies of a 19th century natural historian. Beneath each artifact in the grid is small even block handwriting, marking the date, time and location of its collection, e.g. June 11/Second Avenue at Third street/west side/10 AM. At the center of the grid, towards the bottom, is a hand-drawn map of a section of Manhattan’s East Village, running from Houston Street in the south to Eighth Street in the north, and west to east from Broadway to Avenue A. A small dot on the map is marked with the words “We are here.” Is “here” the site of the piece’s original exhibition, or the home of the artist?

Seven months after seeing this piece, it stays with me as an influence in my own work. The simplicity of the idea, the dedication of the artist to the everyday routine of walking around her neighborhood, and the obsessiveness of collecting and labeling that pariah of all New York trash–used drug paraphernalia–all combine into a portrait of a neighborhood at a particular moment in its history; a moment all but unimaginable in today’s East Village, with its moneyed and policed revelers. What sorts of trash might an observant walker find on her morning walk through the same streets, two decades after Jernigan?

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