A Life Less Ordinary

Janet Orselli. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Janet Orselli. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Long before any of us were born, this thing began its life with a purpose — a shoe form, a chair, a baby carriage. It had a place in a household, meaning and utility. It was needed, perhaps even loved. Time passed. Its usefulness passed. It was stored away, eventually discarded. Polk County artist Janet Orselli has a knack for finding these things — with all the weight of history and memory still attached to them — and giving them a chance to start over, this time serving not our ordinary, everyday needs, but our desire to reconnect with discarded or forgotten parts of our own past.

“I grew up in a house where things were kept,” says Orselli, who’s originally from South Carolina. “They were members of the household — you couldn’t throw them away.”

That sense of belonging and a palpable link between people and their familiar possessions is almost like a raw material that Orselli uses in her haunting installation pieces. By selecting not the precious or overly sentimental aspects of material culture, but rather its reliable, unsung objects, she creates an access point to personal memory. A child’s sturdy chair, the worn wooden crutch — Orselli sometimes preserves their form, but shifts the context, resetting those familiar buttons and allowing for a new response. Other times she alters the form slightly — adding wheels to a shoe form or feathers to a chair — allowing the object to become something different.

“It creates a surprise, seeing something you don’t expect,” she says. And that allows the viewer to bypass thinking about the work and go straight to feeling it.”

Orselli has a keen eye for finding the humanity in an object — a graceful chair leg, a stout dress form, the slender neck of a violin. She’s also drawn to the evidence of human interaction with it: the worn surface a wooden shoe form that’s been smoothed over time by the touch of a hand, the scarred leather surface of an old baseball. Antique objects are unique in their visual link to their history, Orselli says. “You don’t get that with plastic.”

She tries not to artificially distress the items she uses — “you can’t hurry that process” — but sometimes incorporates earthy materials such as branches, moss, and birds’ nests that give the impression that nature has started the process of decay, reclaiming the object, which will eventually break down and decompose.

“While Orselli’s installations are not a celebration of things old,” says Wim Roefs of IF gallery in Columbia, South Carolina, who has curated shows in which her work has appeared, “her materials do provide an appealing entry point into works of art that are actually statements about contemporary culture.”

Orselli is interested not only in abandoned objects, but neglected spaces. In a 2002 group show called Accessibility in Sumter, South Carolina, she created a site-specific work called Baggage in a vacant room with a broken elevator and peeling paint. The piece featured altered suitcases and chairs, creating the sense of a waiting room before the start of a journey that may be long over or have never begun. In the Accessibility 2006 show in Columbia, South Carolina, her piece Traverse inhabited a vacant department store window. A dress form that may once have been found in such a store was suspended in air and fitted with slender branches that looked like wings, allowing the form to elevate itself.

Orselli was the first artist invited to do an installation in Charleston’s Gibbs Museum, a far-from-abandoned space, but one with a strong sense of history. In 2005, under the soaring 25-foot-rotunda of the museum with its Tiffany window, Orselli created the site-specific work Encircling Spaces, featuring objects that may have at one time belonged in such a grand setting but had long since been banished from it. Combining nineteenth-century chairs, bird cages and ornate frames with pine straw mats, wisteria branches and nuts created a sense of faded grandeur and lost innocence, common themes for the Southern artist, expressed in an unpredictable way.

In recent years, she’s added elements of performance to her work, from an original spoken word piece to a music and movement piece in which the artist and friends interact with the installation to add another layer of meaning.

While Orselli has had a solo exhibition in New York’s prestigious OK Harris Works of Art gallery (and has another planned for next year), she says she feels her work has more impact in places where viewers are not much exposed to conceptual art, such as small town North and South Carolina. In a discussion after a show in Myrtle Beach, she says, some of the viewers most resistant to the idea that her work was “art” were also the ones in whom it invoked the strongest memories and response. “She’s had about a dozen installation commissions in the Carolinas in the last five years,” says Roefs. “In a region where installation art is a rarity — especially in mainstream art institutions — her ability to gain access to them is impressive.”

In 2005, she received a grant from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, which supports individual artists doing important work, as well as a South Carolina Arts Commission grant.

“Objects have a lesson for us,” says Orselli. “They have a specific association, a practical purpose. They become bound by that purpose. We think we have a set identity that we can’t overcome. But if a thing can become something else, we can transform ourselves, too.”

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