Watch a video excerpt below of The Chadwicks’s performance at Winkleman Gallery.
The selection of artist Jimbo Blachly and poet Lytle Shaw as editors of the Chadwick Family Papers is sufficiently eccentric to have given rise to the widespread consensus that the Chadwicks themselves are mere figments of their editors’ febrile imaginations; a belief amply supported both by the indignities to which the archive itself has been subjected (Vaseline) and the fact that purported Chadwicks have appeared only in the heaviest and most peculiar of disguises (in suits of armor, or as Johnnie Walker look-alikes) and have borne a startling resemblance to their supposed employees. Whatever the facts, Blachly and Shaw’s roles as the delusional guardians of an almost certainly nonexistent archive have allowed them to employ a dizzying array of often contradictory strategies, layering irony, and apparent incompetence on sincere historical inquiry and emotion to create disorienting and comical experiences that leave viewers tantalizingly unsure as to the meaning or ultimate purpose of the Chadwicks’ often Herculean efforts.
Their recent exhibition at Wickleman Gallery in New York, Furling the Spanker: Masterworks from the Chadwicks’ Nautical Collection, provides the unsuspecting visitor with a full array of Chadwickian experiences and paraphernalia ranging from the surprisingly affecting to the truly odd. Some, like the Shipwreck Memorials (tabletop reliefs of the ocean immediately after a ship’s sinking), are sweetly elegiac despite the tongue-in-cheek suggestions of mourning. Others, such as the maritime selections from Chadwick’s Illustrated History (garishly colored images from children’s historical coloring books juxtaposed with lubricious bits of maritime jargon), are frankly hilarious, as are the Contemporary Sterns (photographs of undistinguished Dutch canal boats attached to turgid maritime narratives involving various hapless Chadwicks). All of these series revel in the way in which relabeling or recontextualizing can subvert the most anodyne images and create something unsettlingly resistant to any coherent narrative. By comparison, the unabashedly romantic Nocturn watercolors are genuinely moving—a reminder that sincere aspiration to the sublime is also included in the editors’ big bag of tricks.
The focus of this orgy of grief and hilarity (and transcendence) is the Nelson Man o’Bar, a commemorative model of the HMS Victory, on which Nelson perished during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. According to the unassuming beige pamphlet provided by the editors, the Chadwicks purchased the model (whose obsessive and peculiar craftsmanship suspiciously recalls previous installations by Blachly) shortly after the admiral’s death. They soon tired of mourning, however, and put the replica to increasingly profane uses, ranging from Chadwick Dalton’s reenactments of Nelson’s death from within the model (as documented in a remarkably incoherent film*) to Torrent Chadwick’s use of it as a bar—thereby originating the term “Man o’Bar”—and finally selling it to the Victoria and Albert Museum in Mumbai, from which the editors recently reclaimed it at no small personal cost (much of the pamphlet is devoted to Shaw’s ecstatic contemplation of Blachly’s edibility after they abandon ship). This enormous white elephant both dominates the exhibition and embodies within itself Blachly and Shaw’s compulsive reenactment of the moment where aesthetic forms cease to function as originally intended; a space perched uneasily between nostalgia for the simple certainties of bygone elites and exhilaration and revulsion at those very certainties. On a less theoretical level, the alternately elegiac and hysterical tone of the exhibition can be more than amply explained by my personal theory, which is that their supposed editors long ago murdered the enfeebled remnants of the Chadwick family and have been happily impersonating them ever since.
*Full disclosure: this film contains a truly dreadful piece of overacting by a mercifully remote ancestress of mine.
—Ellen Harvey is an artist living in Brooklyn. She’s had solo exhibitions at the Bass Museum, Miami Beach; the Center for Contemporary Art, Warsaw; and the Whitney Museum at Altria. She is the author of The New York Beautification Project (2005). Her work was included in the 2008 Whitney Biennial and the opening exhibition of the 2011 Turner Contemporary, Margate, England.