May 2004
 
  Ward Shelley
at Pierogi

Brooklyn artist Ward Shelley, whose work often mixes abject sculptural objects with stamina-based performance, has never quite found his niche in the art world-that is, until he carved one out for himself, quite literally, in this tour-de-force show, titled "We Have Mice."

During the exhibition's five-week run, Shelley lived and worked inside Pierogi's walls, in a 3-foot-wide crawlspace that he had meticulously constructed on-site prior to the opening. Once entrenched in his

 
  narrow lair, which included a computer, assorted hardware and drawing supplies, a drafting desk and a sleeping loft, Shelley did not emerge during daylight hours. A (visible) tunnel made of cardboard connected the lair to the gallery's (now Shelley's) bathroom, running along the ceiling and down to its doorway. Throughout the duration of the show, Shelley spent his time making art and finding all sorts of mousy ways to display it.
The exhibition gathered steam over time, as every day Shelley would put something new on view. Pathetic little dolls he cobbled together from foam and glue appeared inside cabinets, complete with doors and handles, freshly hewn into the wall. Drawings were hung from a clothesline or miraculously appeared inside a flat file constructed to mimic Pierogi's own (a famous artists' and collectors' resource)-though Shelley's had a false back. Video monitors suspended in the middle of the room
 

allowed visitors to track the artist's allowed visitors to track the artist's movements via live and canned feed supplied by surveillance cameras located inside the crawlspace. But surprises were ever in store. During the gallery f opening, visitors had to beware, as a circular saw, operated from within the crawlspace, carved slits in the drywall. Out slid index cards penned by the prolix Shelley, with phrases like "Self-criticism just isn't sexy. I don't know why."
In less experienced hands, this mise-en-scene would have come off as an amusing prank,
but Shelley expertly kept things in balance. The slipshod nature of many of the new, discrete (read: salable) works created an interesting dialogue with the (noncommercial) project as a whole. Just where did the value reside? And casting the artist in the role of vermin was an image that rang all too true-as if to say, better to listen to the patter

 

  of artists' feet- safely behind gallery walls than to endure their patter of self-promotion.
In an unexpected move at the end of the run of "Mice," Shelley and Pierogi's director, Joe Amrhein, decided to keep the show open for four more days but with a twist. Huge chunks had been taken out of the wall to reveal both the artist and his cramped surroundings. It made for a rather sobering, if enlightening, coda to the enterprise. Visitors found the normally clean shaven Shelley sporting a full beard, sifting amid dust and detritus behind imprisoning rows of drywall studs. Tapping away at his computer or chatting with visitors, the artist seemed in relatively good spirits. Judging from his wan appearance, however, it was clear that the show had taken its toll. Shelley was no mouse, but a man after all. And the final impression his installation left was profoundly human.

- Sarah Schmerler