J. J. McCracken: ‘Thirst’

By Jessica Oros on January 20, 2012
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J.J. McCracken discusses her work at ‘Thirst’ opening.




Thirst runs January 7 through February 18, 2012 with an artist talk on Thursday, February 16, 2012.

J.J. McCracken held an opening reception for her solo show, Thirst, at the 39th Street Gallery in Brentwood, MD. In this exhibition, she continues to explore the ideas of abundance and scarcity in society. Most of her recent work has been performance installations involving clay, but this current piece involves no performance from the artist. Concepts have evolved from the social issues of hunger to those of water consumption not just in the United States but also on a global scale.

Normally the gallery space at 39th Street Gallery is a single room, which guests enter from a doorway leading off the main entrance of the building. McCracken transformed the area into her own and built a wall in the project space, creating separate rooms to exhibit her installation. When the viewer walks into the main entrance of the gallery they are confronted with two large pieces hanging on the right wall. Each of the images depicts moments from McCracken’s endurance piece, Thirst and the Martyr, which she performed at the Emerge Art Fair.

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Photo Credit: Margaret Boozer

Two women attached by leather straps struggle against each other trying to get a taste of water from opposite ends of the platform. While the two women pull against each other, they are hindered by the weight of many clay bowls and cups. A close-up of one woman’s blindfolded face shows the struggle to get a drink of water from the spoon – merely inches away.

These images from McCracken’s performance help the viewer to see the evolution of her concept. As the piece expands and develops into different forms, McCracken continues to play with the ideas of the sociopolitical issues that trouble her. The performance shows the women in a constant conflict to attain water with each woman on equal footing trying to obtain this resource. The exhibition, Thirst, continues this conversation. Combining the concepts of scarcity and need with that of plenty and privilege.

Thirst requires viewers to use all their senses when in the enclosed spaces. A white “sound room” leads into the “dry room.” Here clay covered walls curl out at the viewer asking to be pulled and touched while dry, brown grass refuses to grow on a slanted floor. Walking in, visitors are assaulted by a musty odor of stagnant water, but there is none in sight. The only hint of water is the overhead sound of water running in a shower. Standing in the small space we are able to pinpoint different moments in the bathing process, from the squeak of pipes when turning the water on to the draining of water at the end of the shower.

A small slit in the left wall gives the viewer a glimpse into an unattainable area. No matter the angle when trying to look into the gap the view is partially blocked creating the sense that this place and the items inside are beyond your reach. In the small, enclosed space, water images play repeatedly on a TV and empty clay bowls, identical to the ones in the performance installation, hang from the walls and cover the floor. The exhibit provokes the viewer to consider the idea of scarcity and need that they might not have had experienced.

McCracken decided to take the concepts developed in Thirst and the Martyr further by removing the performance aspect and allowing the viewer to concentrate on the concepts introduced and not the people in the performance. Her idea was to have the “dry room” be a “painting you stand inside of or [one that] is surrounding you.” Similar to the performance there is this struggle present. The walls beg visitors to peel off and pick at the clay, but this is not possible because it is part of the work of art. Viewers want to intervene just as they wanted to give McCracken water during the performance.

The exhibit shows the progress McCracken has made and the development of her work from Thirst and the Martyr. She juxtaposes the ideas of having too little with having a surplus using a variety of media allowing viewers to remain connected to the work. Her continued focus on the use of clay provides conflict between the piece and the viewer, which upholds the idea of intervention of the viewer, started in her performance piece. The ability to create this connection between the inanimate piece and the viewer maintains the attraction to the piece and draws the viewers into the painting-like atmosphere of the rooms created. For more information about J.J. McCracken visit her website at www.jjmccracken.com.

Thirst runs January 7 through February 18, 2012 with an artist talk on Thursday, February 16, 2012.

Gallery Hours:

  • Thursdays and Fridays 7-9pm
  • Saturdays 12-3pm
  • and by appointment (301-864-3860, x3)

39th Street Gallery is located 3901 Rhode Island Avenue, Brentwood, MD 20722. For more information visit www.39thstreetgallery.org.