James Garvey’s Objects for Personal Ceremony:  An Appreciation

by  Roger Lipsey           January, 2009


The first things to notice are sweetness and clarity. This sequence of works is friendly to the human species; it wants us to live well and shares a clear-eyed experiment in living. “These pieces demonstrate an idea,” writes the artist.  “Suppose it is necessary to stop being vague and proceed to care about individual interests….” There must have been an analytic phase in his preparations: after all, what individual interests really matter? His response takes the form of 14 Objects for Personal Ceremony dedicated to essential experiences.  The roster of essential experiences is idiosyncratic, to use a word favored by James Garvey—someone else might have focused on something else, though the wisdom of his choices is one of the delights of the sequence.  A word still filled with ancient Greek music, “idiosyncratic” derives from idios, "one's own," and syn-krasis, "mixture": this is Garvey’s own mixture of the ingredients in every life.

It’s worthwhile to run down the roster: seeing (especially seeing into oneself), magic, decision making, unconstrained joy, protecting things of value, exercising and developing attention, a spa or relaxing bath that gives access to more of one’s experience, restoring pride, concentration, regaining psychological balance, dressing to liberate rather than limit, cultivating a capacity for interest, preparing food and dining with others as an exercise in awareness, and closure—ending life passages in a wise, ceremonial way.

Each Object is accompanied by a drawing that demonstrates its use and provides brief explanation, partly in the style of an instruction manual but with echoes from elsewhere that need to be explored.  Though the notion of an Object for Personal Ceremony may sound self-enclosed, the drawings correct that misconception. Someone else—family, friends, even crowds—is always there to witness, participate, assist. The persons invited to the ceremony are all of us.

Echoes from elsewhere—but where? Garvey’s texts are declarative, undramatic, at times touched with humor, and they are necessary: we wouldn’t know how to use or understand the Objects without advice. The texts and drawings support the existence of the Objects, help them become firm parts of this world. And there is, indeed, a paradigmatic work of art in Modernist tradition that initiated this tone and strategy—one that inspired, over the years, innumerable works by other artists.  Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass” of 1915-23 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and his related publication, the so-called “Green Box” overflowing with cryptic notes and sketches about the “Large Glass,” is the grandparent or great-grandparent of the Objects for Personal Ceremony.

But Duchamp’s irony, deliberate obscurity, and entertaining wickedness are nowhere to be found in the Objects and commentaries. The moral seriousness here reflects some other world of values. What comes to mind, not as an immediate ancestor but as a solution to a similar expressive challenge, is the traditional presentation of key moments in a saint’s life, found, for example, in the Russian icon tradition (fig. 1). These stations of a life, accompanied by brief explanatory texts, are no t unlike the stations of life in Garvey’s sequence. The moral seriousness, updated to our own era and concerns, is the same.

Now where are we in this effort to understand? We are perceiving a fully contemporary work of art—something new and uplifting, but also touching and fun—that has hidden roots in two worlds: the fiercely brilliant, idiosyncratic Modernism of Duchamp but also the steady tradition of Christian pictorial narrative.  In holding up these two mirrors to James Garvey’s Objects for Personal Ceremony, we may well be reflecting something of the light that fills him.   

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Roger Lipsey’s most recent book is the award-winning Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton (2006).