Thomas Condon's Wake

Fourteen black picture frames hang on a white wall just inside the Art Academy of Cincinnati's Chidlaw Gallery. It's a late August afternoon, and Art Club 2002 -- a group comprised of recent Univers

Sep 19, 2002 at 2:06 pm

Fourteen black picture frames hang on a white wall just inside the Art Academy of Cincinnati's Chidlaw Gallery. It's a late August afternoon, and Art Club 2002 — a group comprised of recent University of Cincinnati art graduates Caroline Caldwell, Erin Heitsch, Brandon Hickle and Andre Hyland — are putting the finishing touches on their latest installation.

Earlier this year, at the student gallery of the UC's DAAP building, Art Club 2002 re-created 52 scribbles of hate graffiti that were found throughout UC's campus. The piece quickly generated controversy, and some UC administrators derided the installation as a "work of hatred" (see "Art Club 2002," issue of May 9-15, 2002).

For the four artists, the piece confirmed what they always believed: Good art is frequently political.

Part of a group show at the Chidlaw Gallery, Art Club 2002 returns with a new piece of political and socially-conscious art. This time, their subject is convicted Cincinnati artist Thomas Condon.

Condon left Cincinnati on April 29, after Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel sent him to prison for two and a half years for taking pictures of bodies at the Hamilton County Morgue without permission. (The Ohio First District Court of Appeals ordered him released Sept. 13 pending appeal of his conviction.) At the time, Caldwell, Heitsch, Hickle and Hyland were finishing up their studies at UC.

They often left classes to protest on Condon's behalf outside the Hamilton County Courthouse.

Once Condon was imprisoned, they decided to channel their anger into a new installation. Condon was gone, but they wanted to create something in his wake that would remind Cincinnati of the injustice he'd experienced.

At a distance, the Chidlaw Gallery installation appears ordinary and respectful. Up close, after reading the documents contained among the 14 frames, is where you understand the activist spirit behind the group's latest work. Quotes pulled from the media coverage of Condon's trial fill the frames.

"OK, I guess you are telling us that basically you considered what you were doing as art?" Nadel says to Condon.

Another quote from Nadel stands out more: "Mr. Condon instigated this entire situation with his so-called project, which I can only describe in my words as idiotic."

Other frames contain a copy of Condon's psychological evaluation, descriptions of the symbolic objects he intended to use for his series of morgue photographs and a legal description of the term "gross abuse of a corpse."

One frame explains the spirit behind Art Club 2002's installation. It contains a quote from Oscar Wilde: "If you tell the truth, you are sooner or later to be found out."

The final frame in the installation reveals the artist group's opinion of Nadel. The frame contains an image of the judge holding one of Condon's photographs. Above the image a headline reads, "Cincinnati's Art Critic of the Year."

Art Club 2002 achieves what's best about much contemporary conceptual art by making creative use of found objects and limited resources. Their Chidlaw Gallery installation is a simple construction of 14 frames on a blank wall. Its impact lies in what it says and shows within these inexpensive frames. Like their UC installation, Art Club 2002 tackles a "profane" subject and discuss it in an intelligent and engaging manner.

A couple of days after the exhibit's Sept. 11 opening, Condon was released from prison and allowed to return home to his friends and family. During a brief visit, Condon discussed his preparations for his upcoming exhibition at The Carnegie in Covington. He mostly talked about reuniting with family, especially his wife, Kelly. But before he left, he mentioned Art Club 2002's installation piece about his conviction.

"I loved it," Condon said enthusiastically. "I thought it was great."

Caldwell, Heitsch, Hickle and Hyland have little political or corporate power to back up their opinions. What they set out to do was to create a dialogue about Condon's imprisonment and to engage the community to his cause. They likely didn't expect to impact the person their exhibit was meant to celebrate.

Contact steve ramos: [email protected]