Nari Ward embarrassed his kids in the name of art

For viewers who encounter it taking up nearly an entire wall at the Barnes Foundation, Nari Ward’s “Iron Heavens” is a striking, faintly disturbing piece that suggests the threat of violence against a dark night sky. For Ward’s children, though, it was just another embarrassing thing that dad did.

“That was the bane of my kids’ existence,” laughed Ward during an interview in his new career-spanning exhibition, “Sun Splashed,” which opens at the Barnes this weekend. In keeping with the found-object origins of much of his work, Ward constructed a haunting night sky out of dozens of oven pans. “We’d be driving down the street and I’d pull the car over and jump out. They were always embarrassed, like ‘This is what it’s come to — my father is raiding ovens.’”

Ward’s work is built on that kind of repurposing, taking things that others have thrown away and using them to look at the broader culture. Born in Jamaica and based in New York City, his monumental pieces tackle ideas of Caribbean and African-American culture, politics and history, often with a sardonic sense of humor.

Visitors to the Barnes’ exhibition are greeted by a trio of towering orange snowmen, made of tangled balls of burnt foam beaded with mango seeds and small electronic components. A coffin-like tanning bed takes up one side of the gallery, imprinted with an image of the American flag and blasting an oddly patriotic CD used to train parrots to talk. On the other side of the room is a towering black-and-red construction built atop a shopping cart and topped with a throne-like chair; a nearby screen shows video footage of Ward pushing the cart through the streets of New York.

Of course, in New York no one pays mind to such eccentricities in their midst, but Ward’s goal is to bring that kind of acceptance of the unexpected into the gallery space. “It’s great to see the exotic become normalized,” he said. “That’s kind of why I work with everyday objects. I really want to seduce the viewer into thinking about their own experience and then find a way for their reading of it to be altered.”

In that sense the Barnes is the ideal location for Ward’s show — the foundation’s founder, Dr. Albert Barnes, famously arranged his collection to place incongruous items right next to each other, a shocking break from the typical art museum approach.

“His whole thing was installation and juxtaposition,” Ward said. “That blew me away: these strange, unique combinations that you’d never think of. Some of it is absurd and some of it makes total sense, and that’s what I want to happen with viewers. At a certain point they just see this as being what it is and try to understand it from their own experience.”

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