In his ghostly installation, Ode to a Void, at Studio10, Brooklyn, artist Ron Baron has channeled a literally granular level of grief. Particles of pearlite, salt, sand and broken glass are sprinkled on the gallery floor in the pattern of a room-sized spiral resembling a cosmic corona. Placed seemingly at random on this winding road to nowhere — or at least nowhere on earth — are some 60 pairs of shoes, ranging from baby’s shoes to adult cowboy boots. They have been slip-cast in ceramic, and whatever their past life was, they are now frozen in time.
The use of empty shoes as mourners’ symbols is neither new nor new to Baron. In honor of the Holocaust, 60 pairs of rusted cast-iron shoes, “Shoes on the Danube Promenade,” line the bank of the river in Budapest, Hungary, as a permanent memorial. Holocaust victims’ shoes have long been on display at Israel’s Yad Vashem. In March of this year, protesters left 7,000 pairs of shoes outside the Capitol building in Washington to commemorate child victims of gun violence in the United States.
Baron’s spectral spiral has its own painful twist. His 2017 show at Smack Mellon also used empty white ceramic shoes to great effect. In that show, Beyond/Beyond, the collection of shoes, then as now, anonymous, represented the footwear of a range of people, from businessmen to housewives, and conjured up a powerful aura of grief. Where are those who wore them? Where were they going? Where did they go? Did they leave footprints in the sands of time?
That mournful mystery is vastly magnified in the artist’s current installation, Ode to a Void, which is permeated with a sense of profound personal loss. Although the shoes were gotten at thrift shops, their anonymity has been, to a certain extent, removed. These pairs of shoes specifically emulate the shoes of members of a family, one of whom has tragically died.
The sudden loss of a loved one, death at its most intimate, has an enormity that is almost impossible to apprehend or comprehend. How can someone be here one moment, and not here the next, and how can that information ever be inculcated? The first response to such a death is disbelief, incomprehension and shock. Baron’s work is a numinous meditation on the survivors’ effort to assimilate the unthinkable.
While the loss itself is permanently gut-wrenching, Baron’s sorrowful parade of bone-white shoes — a poetic dance of death — has a gentle, almost mesmerizing rhythm. These shade-like shoes refuse to be subsumed by the inevitability of mortality, a relentless vortex. This melancholy march of phantom shoes, set on a path resembling the spilled contents of a huge hourglass, maintains its stark and somber beauty.
Baron’s subtle attention to detail: the tiny corpse-like pair of pink infant ballet shoes perched atop a black pair of overturned adult shoes; the crucifixion of some shoes with nails; the embellishing of other shoes with decorative glazes, some blood-red, enhances the sense of personal sorrow. And yet the sparkles among the strewn particles — here some broken glass, here some glitter, and on closer glance, a sad but sweet sprinkling of virginal white blossoms, hints at the marking — if not celebration — of some sort of memorial or anniversary. And the use of pearlite, typically used in potting soil, invests the installation with a pale glimmer of hope amidst the unbearable pain; an ephemeral flicker evoking the transitory glow of departed souls.
The force of the spiral itself makes it easy to miss its overflow, perhaps a parentheses to the main body of the piece. Set apart in one corner of the gallery is a modest pile of particles, punctuated by a simple semicircle of shoes: a pair of female shoes, a pair of male shoes and three small pairs of Mary Janes. Baron has succeeded in creating an installation that is as physically beautiful as it is spiritually haunting.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open (2014).