History of Rejection

"Karaoke Wrong Number" DVD cover by Rachel Perry Welty

You’re cutting up an avocado for salad, but first you have to remove that little oval sticker. How annoying — they’re also on bananas, and if you don’t catch them before rinsing a red pepper, you never get them off. You can’t even boycott apples because now all apples have them, even the organic ones.

Rather than sweat the small stuff, artist Rachel Perry Welty turned fruit stickers into an art medium. She may use them whole and collage them, or she may cut them into the thinnest of strips and create line drawings with them.

The Boston-based artist was visiting the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick recently for the installation of Rachel Perry Welty 24/7, on view Jan. 28 through July 8.

As a visitor descends to the lower level gallery, she encounters an enormous wall covered with fruit sticker wallpaper. Ms. Welty begins by making a 5-by-2-foot collage of the fruit stickers, scans it and creates a repeat pattern, then prints it.

There are legions who help Ms. Welty collect fruit stickers, including Zimmerli Curator Donna Gustafson. The sticky shiny emblazonments are saved on sheets of waxed paper, from which Ms. Welty peels them and uses additional adhesive. Here she is creating long looping circles in an installation titled “Ripe Now” from the Calavo Ripe Now sticker. A similar work by Ms. Welty was exhibited in Consumed at the Arts Council of Princeton two winters ago.

Ms. Gustafson has also had to collect glossy circulars that come stuffed in the newspaper – you know, the ones you dump directly into the recycling bin. Ms. Welty cuts out the tiny squares of products pictured in these sale circulars – a plastic jug of Ajax detergent, a package of Fritos, a bottle of Heinz Ketchup, a box of Pampers — and pastes them in long strips.

She also uses twist ties and aluminum foil to create sculptural installations. She began collecting twist ties while in art school, but says they are getting harder and harder to find as products are now packaged in plastic shells.

Beginning in October 2005, Ms. Welty began her “Deaccession Project.” The word refers to the process museums use to eliminate artwork from their collections, only Ms. Welty is using it to get rid of her junk. The artist begins by photographing the item, writing a brief description, and recording the next stop in the object’s provenance – given to a friend, Craig’s List, Goodwill, trash.

There is, for example, a photograph of beautiful ceramic plates with a Turkish design painted on. Under the image: “Given to me by EMcBF who got them at the thrift shop she worked in; she said they matched my bathroom colors, which they did, but we moved. Goodwill.”

Do gift givers ever feel insulted by this process? “There’s a blanket ‘forgive me’ for gifts given away,” says the thin, soft-spoken woman with platinum hair.

She has amassed more than 2,200 records of deaccessioned objects that comprise six bound volumes. Here at the Zimmerli, the documents have been scanned and now make up a large grid on a wall more than 80 feet long and 20 feet high. The museum hired a consultant to help install the grid, outlined by string, as well as recruiting students. It took two days just to create the string outlines.

The work starts at the top upper left, and continues with deaccessioned personal possessions in all the grids. This is an ongoing project, so Ms. Welty will be continuing to add pages for the duration of the exhibit.

“I don’t miss any of things I’ve deaccessioned, except for two,” she says. “The photo stands in for the object and prompts memory, which is what our things are about.”

The two things she misses? A set of markers that probably hadn’t dried out as much as she’d initially thought, and a seltzer maker that came with her husband when they married. (He gave permission; still, they miss it.)

Seeing the “Deaccession” wall makes her realize that with all she’s given away, it has hardly made in dent in what she has.

The work is labor intensive. Sometimes she works on it alone, and other times she solicits helpers. Ms. Welty recruited 45 workers from Craig’s List for a “twisting bee” at the Cambridge, Mass., Starbucks to create a sculpture of long cascading rings from silver twist ties. The sculpture was exhibited at ICA Boston in 2006 and then recycled into another artwork – a life-size photograph of herself in the sculpture.

The “Lost in My Life” series are also life-size photographs of Ms. Welty surrounded by packaging. And “Soundtrack to My Life” are made from the Muzak songs she collects at the drug store or other shops “that surround us like aural trash.” She captures the song on her iPhone, downloads the lyrics, and then cuts up her junk mail to make “ransom note” style re-creations of the lyrics.

Spam, too, becomes fodder for this artist. She takes the subject lines from spam – say, “What do you really want?” – and renders the sentence in heavy-duty aluminum foil. “It becomes poetic and existential,” she says of the once-spam words.

With a studio in New York City as well as a home just outside Boston, Ms. Welty says storage is always a problem. She is lucky in that collectors buy her work when they see it.  This show was at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln Park, Mass., before it came to the Zimmerli. The original twist tie sculpture, however, lives in 16 Rubber Maid tubs in her garage.

It is not surprising to learn that an artist who uses packaging as her medium began her career in advertising. An English major at Connecticut College, she learned how to use an Exacto blade and to cut and paste with glue and create a composition during her two-year tenure in the world of Mad Men.

Then she gave birth to a son born after just 11 weeks of gestation. “He was the sickest baby in the care unit at Children’s Hospital Boston,” Ms. Welty recounts.

That son is now 21 and a healthy psychology and economics major, but she responded to the experience by making art. “Altered Receipt” was made on the 37-page bill from the hospital. Every alphanumeric symbol is represented by a color, mixed in gauche on paper by Ms. Welty.

Ms. Welty was inspired to become an artist when she observed her mother go back to school for art late in life. “I saw the work she was doing and it cracked me wide open,” she says. “She and I have similar interest.” So Ms. Welty enrolled at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, and has been producing artwork for a decade.

Ms. Welty will have a solo show in collaboration with her mother, Sarah Hollis Perry, at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester.

One day several years ago, Ms. Welty came home and heard a voice mail message from a woman complaining to Father Garrity about the dust in the church, and how the choir couldn’t practice. Ms. Welty did not know the caller, Father Garrity or the church. “It was so poignant,” she says. “She assumed – we all assume – that the information will get to the right person. We leave our information all over. I started thinking about privacy, and how technology can impede communication.

“It was the same with my son’s medical chart,” she says. “It was deeply personal, but I had to buy it. I had to pay to get it out of the vault and have it photocopied. It was ours, but not ours.”

Ms. Welty and her husband, it turns out, receive quite a few voice mail messages from people they don’t know. So she saved the recordings, spliced them together, and video recorded herself lip sinking the words for “Karaoke Wrong Number.”

Wearing a white T-shirt against a white ground, her whitish hair in a ponytail, Ms. Welty assumes male voices, effeminate male voices, even the high-pitched pseudo sweet voice of a woman calling to take a survey. Ms. Welty manipulates her face into expressions that make her lip-synching believably authentic.

“I knew I had to put myself into it, and I was terrified,” says Ms. Welty, who went to the Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., with Steve Carrell and acted in his senior project, a farce.

There’s no teleprompter, she has memorized all the words, and some recordings required 50 or more takes. The project was completed during a residency at the McDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., where she could devote 10 full days to it.

On March 11, 2009, Ms. Welty transformed Facebook into a performance space, updating her status every minute of her waking day for “Rachel Is.” (This was during a prior iteration of Facebook, when the status bar asked the question “what are you doing right now?”)

At the Zimmerli, iPhones are mounted on the wall, and each plays a slide show of screen captures of Ms. Welty’s Facebook page that day: Rachel Perry Welty is waking up to the alarm, Rachel Perry Welty is appreciating, Rachel Perry Welty is commenting to Jane and chopping eggplant, Rachel Perry Welty is falling asleep.

“I would type a post, hit “post,” make a screen capture, then set the timer for 60 seconds,” she recounts. During the course of the day she managed to shower, do laundry and make soup from scratch. “I tried to work on a drawing but it was too disruptive.”

The sequence went viral, and Ms. Welty found herself fielding friend requests from all over the world. “I assumed I’d be working solo, but people were cheering me on and it became a community.” She says it’s about narcissism, privacy and technology.

The next day, she instinctively continued saying “Rachel is getting coffee,” “Rachel is sitting down,” “Rachel is reading the New York Times.” She was so exhausted from “recording the minutia of my life,” she developed pneumonia.

The exhibit is accompanied by a catalog. The pages are folded over and, intrigued, I peeked inside. There is e-mail correspondence between Ms. Welty and Nick Capasso, curator at the deCordova.

“It’s the history of my rejection at the deCordova,” she says. “Nick was a fan of my work and kept trying to convince the others there.

“There’s so much more about a show, so much more that goes into it, than what you see,” she continues. “I though it made sense to have a hidden history of the experience within the pages of the catalog.

Rachel Perry Welty: 24/7 is on view at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton St., Rutgers University,  New Brunswick, Jan. 28 through July 8. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; first Wednesdays of each month, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission $6 adults; $5 adults over 65, and free for museum members, Rutgers students, faculty and staff (with ID), and children under 18. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 732.932.7237, ext. 610 or visit http://www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu

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