“Organizing things neatly precedes us.”
These first words in Austin Radcliffe’s introduction to Things Organized Neatly — a book of photographs containing exactly what you’d expect — can be read in two ways. In the first reading, where “neatly” modifies “organizing,” it puts the ongoing trend of so-called “organization porn” into a historical perspective. (As Radcliffe points out, the existence of cabinets of curiosity, graphing grids, and meticulously organized things like scientific specimens or crafting and carving tools has a history dating back hundreds of years.) In the second, where “neatly” modifies “precedes,” it’s as if the human impulse to arrange things into logical patterns is in turn part of a neatly ordered history. If even words organized neatly can tell different stories, the possibilities behind ordered physical objects are truly endless.
Radcliffe, a self-described curator, blogger, photographer, and “cyberflâneur,” started his Things Organized Neatly Tumblr blog in 2010, while a student at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. As he posted more and more photographs of things like bike parts carefully arranged across garage floors, pencils delicately lined up at the erasers, and differently colored cassette tapes arranged with the exact same spacing between them, he gained followers by the hundreds. Radcliffe’s blog became a calm and soothing space in the hectic world of the internet. His book is a microcosm of the virtual world he created, a “collection of collections,” as he calls it.
Things Organized Neatly features the work of 13 artists and photographs of their own collections of objects, ending with a few choice works by Radcliffe himself. Each portrays a certain “aesthetic of precision,” as Radcliffe likes to call it. In Tom Sachs‘s foreword to the book, he writes about his own preoccupation with “knolling,” arranging objects parallel and at 90 degree angles. “Much is made to compare these methods with obsessive-compulsive disorder but we all know that OCD is a form of narcissism,” he writes. “Knolling helps us see what’s in front of us so we can discern … always with the aim of understanding materials.”
While Mark Dion presents the aesthetic of science, Jim Golden organizes plastic hair barrettes in color order, Sarah Illenberger makes bugs out of watches and leaves, and Michael Johansson plays Tetris with shipping containers and tractors. All of the artists featured fall into the same category of aesthetic organization (of both objects and colors), yet each has his or her own individual style.
Comparing Sam Kaplan’s towering pyramid of sandwiches to Scheltens & Abbenes’s masculine depictions of neckties and playing cards, you get a completely different feel from them. Then there’s Barry Rosenthal, who creates clean lines and geometry out of found (often dirty) objects he picks up off the street. Ranging from sporks to yellow (or used-to-be yellow) plastic objects, lost shoes, glass bottles covered in stale mud, and even pill bottles and needles, Rosenthal’s neat organization of detritus makes for a very interesting juxtaposition. As Radcliffe writes, “The careful arrangement of objects demonstrates a reverence for their collection.” A reverence toward garbage is something that’s both rare and somehow admirably profound.
In an increasingly frenzied world, it’s no wonder we gravitate toward Radcliffe’s blog, slow TV, and soft voices. Perhaps the best aspect of Things Organized Neatly (both the book and the blog) is that it’s a completely new experience every time, the objects telling different stories each time you see them. Maybe I’ll keep this book on my desk. You know, for when I’m feeling stressed out by the other art books I’m reading and reviewing.