Art

After Purging Her Possessions, an Artist Paints What Remained

In Possession, Jaye Schlesinger displays the small-scale oil paintings she made for each of the 380 objects she decided to keep.

Possession by Jaye Schlesinger, installation view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The word “possession” carries multiple meanings, signifying both an object under ownership and the state of being in the thrall of a dominant force. Capitalism thrives on material consumption, and we are driven as a society to constantly express ourselves through our possessions, even as many of us find ourselves in crushing debt to maintain them. While there’s been a recent trend to minimize one’s possessions, it’s merely a part of a larger cycle of purging, inherent to an unhealthy relationship with material objects. Without some kind of process of reflection, we are prone to simply fill our spaces with new possessions expressing our desires, weaknesses, and aspirations.

Possession, installation view (photo by Lucy Cahill, courtesy of University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities)

Over the course of two years, artist Jaye Schlesinger embarked on a project to consider every one of her personal possessions, deciding whether to keep them or let them go. After selling, recycling, or donating everything that failed to make the cut (or, in the current parlance of stuff-purging, failed to “spark joy”), Schlesinger reified her relationship with her remaining possessions by depicting every single one of them as the subject of a small-scale oil painting, numbering 380 in total. Some of the paintings are of individual objects, and some show groups of objects, such as a stack of pans or a set of button-down shirts on hangers, that relate to each other by function or form. This object-cloud of little paintings, collectively titled Possession is on pop-up display at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities, and creates a pleasing, abstracted portrait of an existence.

Possession, detail view

“There are objects of functionality and ones of beauty,” reads Schlesinger’s statement on the work. “There are questions of quantity, options, variety, practicality, sentimentality, posterity. What we own is a reflection of our deeper self. My intent is to elicit contemplation and conversation about the ‘stuff’ we choose to live with. How much do we really need and why is it hard to let go?”

In some sense, objects act as anchors for the ego — which is engaged in the full-time job of self-definition — as they are both a stabilizing force and drag on our lives. How much we invest in our own spaces and the objects that populate them reflects how much support we need for our sense of self. As with any kind of crutch, the attempts we make to let go of our possessions will generate emotional stress and fallout.

Jaye Schlesinger, pictured left, in her hand mirror

What must have been an involved and tumultuous process is belied by Schlesinger’s simple paintings, tonally unified by their sedate background washes. They are serene, sincere objects that meet the viewer without anything to hide — functional items like dishes, chairs, computer, clothes; sentimental objects like toys, mementos; painterly accoutrements, like tubes of acrylic, brushes, palettes; and small caches of books grouped by color. Everything is readily identifiable, but not photorealistic; Schlesinger’s renderings suggest attachment, playfulness, and deep consideration of her remaining material holdings. The artist herself appears in one of the frames, her face reflected in a hand mirror. She looks solemn, but satisfied, perhaps reaping the benefits of an uncluttered existence.

Possession continues at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities Common Room (202 South Thayer Street, Suite 1111, Ann Arbor, Mich.) through October 20.

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