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"Jonathan Brand: One Piece at a Time" opens at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
One Piece at a Time (detail, Driver’s Door), 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

By: Mónica Ramírez-Montagut

RIDGEFIELD, CONN.- Cars played a pivotal role in Canadian-born artist Jonathan Brand’s youth. He grew up on the border with Michigan, where his grandfather, a millwright, built assembly lines for the auto industry, specifically CAMI Automotive in Ingersoll and Ford in Talbotville. An uncle and a cousin are mechanics, and Brand and his father restored three antique vehicles together, one of them a 1969 Ford Mustang that belonged to the artist. Restoring the Mustang during his college years presented a tough challenge: the artist wanted to propose to his girlfriend, now wife, and was in need of funds for the diamond ring and the wedding, which prompted the sale of the car.

However, his memories of the Mustang lingered on, and in 2010 Brand decided to re create the vehicle full-size from his recollections and photographs. The title of the exhibition, One Piece at a Time, pays homage to Johnny Cash’s song about a Detroit car assembly line worker’s fantasy of owning a Cadillac by removing from his workplace one auto part at a time, stashed in his lunch box, and assembling it at home. “The song points to the Midwest working class mentality that I grew up in and more literally my practice of making one piece of something at a time, not always knowing what the sum of these parts will be or how they will interact.” Thus, similarly to the song, Brand re-created his car one piece at a time. In his case, the parts were drawn flat with computer software, printed on paper, folded and glued together. The intention was to hold onto the experience of re-making and restoring, resulting in a car made by memory where most of the details are similar, but not accurate; hence the end result is not a precise replica. The work in this exhibition does not immediately reveal it is made from large-format inkjet prints or divulge its inaccuracies: “I like my projects to unravel slowly and reward the viewer for looking closely,” explains the artist. The production of the piece also unraveled over time, allowing his memories to flow:

“I drew everything; undercarriage, brakes, suspension etc., but realized that to make all the internal mechanicals this could become a life-long project so chose to focus on the more visible and personally significant pieces. I haven’t ruled out making the missing pieces, but this project is more about my experience and connection with the original car rather then a complete diagrammatical inventory of a 1969 Mustang. Also, the details of the car are based more on my memory of the details. I no longer have access to the car and chose not to use a surrogate to measure. I like when things are slightly wrong, just like my memories can be slightly off.”

Spending time with Brand’s sculpture, the viewer will come to see the details that are slightly “off” and also realize that every original material in the car (leather, carpet, plastic, vinyl, metal) has its own representation in the paper version, translated into different colors and hues on the printouts. The most challenging and yet most rewarding piece to make was the engine, “especially the spark-plug wires,” Brand explains. The engine includes paper-crafted lug nuts, bolts, and a carburetor with interior magnets that attach to the paper motor, which has a metal slab at the center and functions as a shelf in order to be mounted to the wall with a wooden bracket.

Paper was a new material for Brand, “This is my first time working with these materials. One thing that is important to me as an artist is to always use new materials. I learn something new with every project and rarely repeat it.” He adds, “My ideal job would be to be paid to learn new things. I get interested in materials and set out to master the technique and learn and then I usually never do it again. Or I take what I’ve learned and apply it to something a lot different.” His calculations indicate he used 300 sheets of 17 x 22 inch watercolor paper, 200 sheets of 11 x 17 inch paper, and a total of 1,540 milliliters of high-quality artist ink in various shades for the printout. The first component he recreated was one of the tires, a Pirelli P Zero Nero 215/40 ZR17, paying special attention to the individual tire threads. This took three months and 26 sheets of 11 x 17 inch paper to achieve.

As the visitor enters the gallery space, the overall feeling of the installation is that of walking into a workshop space where a car is silently being restored. Some components are laid out on a table for further work and inspection; the wheels are placed separately, as are the doors and hood. Many of these elements are also available for close-up scrutiny—art car aficionados and mechanics may want to explore some pieces in particular, since the iconic and charged 1969 Mustang brings its own commentary to the piece.

“The Mustang is a pillar of American automotive lore, and the car that brought sporting dash and styling at a price almost anyone could afford.” Considered the most powerful Mustang ever built (the 1969 Boss 429) this American classic is seen as “the best Stang ever” and was born the year the Apollo 11 crew walked on the Moon and Woodstock was attended by enthusiastic crowds of music fans—proud moments in American history. The earliest version of the Ford Mustang was introduced in 1964 as a sports car, with the objective of attracting younger buyers. Soon after, performance Mustangs were fabricated in order to compete with General Motors’s Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird.

“1969 was the benchmark year for Ford Mustang in its proliferation of performance names and engines. No less than 7 factory performance Mustang models were available (Boss 302, Boss 429, Shelby GT350, GT500 and the Mach 1). Additionally, nine variations of V-8s were available in the ’69–’70 cars. The GT model was discontinued after 1969.”

The popular Mustang was affordable because it shared much of its engineering with an existing Ford car, the compact Falcon, which was the smallest Ford of the time. The first Mustangs were built in the same Michigan plant as the Falcon, since they shared a front double-wishbone/coil spring and leaf spring rear suspension, as well as its overall length. However, the Mustang’s proportions were different. “Its cockpit was pushed further back on the chassis, resulting in a longer hood and shorter rear deck design, and both its roof and cowl were lower. It’s with those proportions—detailed with such iconic touches as the running horse in the grille, the side scallops along the flanks and the taillights divided into three sections—the Mustang became a car people were instantly passionate about.”

In 1965 Ford sold more than half a million Mustangs. “With that many Mustangs in the nation’s automotive bloodstream, it was natural that many of them would be raced.” In order for the Mustang to race against the Corvette, it had to be transformed into a two seater. The Texan racing veteran Carroll Shelby was in charge of the modifications. “Tossing the rear seats aside, Shelby added such performance items as oversize front disc brakes, a fiberglass hood and a lowered suspension with oversize tires on 15-inch wheels. Shelby’s legendary series of modified Mustangs would be built through 1970 in various forms and are today considered some of the most desirable Mustangs ever built.”

By 1967, the Mustang had competition: the Camaro, Firebird, and Barracuda, and even Ford was selling the Cougar. In response, Ford launched a slightly larger Mustang with a new body on the same chassis and with every styling feature exaggerated—“the grille opening was bigger, the side scallops deeper, the taillights were now larger and concave instead of modest and convex, the 2+2 fastback’s roof now extended all the way back to the trunk lid’s trailing edge and the convertible’s rear window was now a two-piece item made of real glass instead of instantly hazing plastic.” A hood with dual recesses was optional.

The Mustang got larger once again in 1969, the version Brand has re-created. The new body featured four headlights and a sharp nose with a simple grille. The fastback had large, nonfunctional hollow-shaped elements on its rear fenders. “Unlike the ’67, the ’69 design clearly broke from established Mustang styling themes,” hence continuing its initial popularity and selling almost 300,000 units.

The popularity of the Mustang that continues to this day echoes Brand’s own fascination with American design, the power of technology, the poetry found in details, the pleasure of exploring new materials, the passion for vehicles, the lingering memories, and the love people have for this car.

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