When a family friend tipped off St. Paul-based artist Chris Larson about an abandoned garment factory in Tennessee several years ago, he saw it not as a rotting basement-level underworld, but an opportunity to investigate the residue of labor.
Approximately 700 people worked stitching garments for a variety of high-end clients, including Ralph Lauren, in the windowless, cavernous space in Smithville, Tenn., that was in operation from 1950 to 1998.
In 2018, Larson won a $55,000 Guggenheim fellowship to fund his investigations into the place. Larson's work often deals with the histories of labor, and he had originally planned to visit the abandoned factory for one year to excavate, investigate, and understand this place.
Instead, over the course of two years he moved his entire studio to the factory, and rifled through the various things left behind: 50,000 spools of thread, old sewing machines, zippers, desks, the doors of bathroom stalls — not to mention the people who worked there and have stuck around this small town about 60 miles east of Nashville. The factory shut down as work was outsourced to places where labor was cheaper, a fate shared by many blue-collar industries in the United States.
Now Larson has emerged with an exhibition that's fit, in terms of size, for a small museum. More than 55 works from his "residency" at the abandoned factory are currently on view at Chicago's Engage Projects' 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago, plus a smaller gallery show a few blocks north.
The exhibition will travel to the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids, Minn., at an undetermined future date, likely mid-August.
All of the works are made directly from stuff that Larson found at the factory, which itself brings into question the labor of artmaking, and the art of labor.
A series of "Thread Works," created using a foot-treadle-operated machine, appear as simply white canvas with variously colored threads stretched vertically onto them, hanging as if "by a thread." In the middle of the warehouse gallery, Larson built a single-room recreation of the factory — a low-ceilinged space lit by crackling fluorescent lights that viewers can walk through, creating an eerily immersive experience. Shelves of threads left behind line the wall.
In Larson's film "The Stillness of Labor," viewers experience a disorienting tour through his recreation of 12 rooms of the factory. They're angled in a way that makes viewers feel as if they are standing sideways — a metaphor gesturing toward the absence of humans in these spaces now.
A sculpture of the bathroom stall doors hangs on a pole like a revolving series of doors. Larson is interested in the details, like the way a silvery steel lock has spun around so many times it wore down the cream-colored paint, revealing rusty metal underneath.
And then there is the "Timecard" series — a layering of time cards and threads that Larson painted over, then scraped, then painted, on and on until they have become a homage to repetitive motion.
The show is haunting in its specificity. One leaves feeling hollowed out, reminded of how what's seemingly forgotten is actually hidden in plain sight. Not just spaces, but people and their livelihoods.
The exhibition is on view in Chicago through May 21 at Engage Projects, 401 N. Paulina St. and 864 N. Ashland Av. (noon-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat. or by appointment, 312-285-2998, engage-projects.com)