Lizzie Buehler for the Nassau Weekly
Lizzie Buehler for the Nassau Weekly

Joe Sheehan (born 1994, Atlanta) constructs installations, sculptures, and immersive experiences. Refusing to be constrained to the traditional genre of installation work, Sheehan’s experiences examine space in not only three dimensions but across time, a time that surrounds the creation of the work and the experience, before tightening its circlet in a coup de grace. Collapsing sign and signified through works that represent and are lived spaces, Sheehan rejects the notion of set times (deadlines) and, by extension, the artificial dichotomy of “procrastination” and “doing one’s work in a timely manner.”

His latest triumph, 372 Brown, radically appropriates the found object and readymade into a livable environment that draws to mind contemporary college dorm rooms and the TV show Hoarders. Coats hang on the walls, a yoga mat rests in a corner, trash cans are filled

with papers, wine bottles, and discarded sushi. Couches, chairs, and a coffee table occupy most of the floor, all carefully selected over the course of Sheehan’s three and two-thirds years of combing the Princeton landscape. In fact, this installation is a picture-perfect recreation of what might be an earnest, straight-A student’s living area. Is this art, or did I accidentally walk into a messy dorm room, the viewer is tempted to ask.

Sheehan takes the deskilling of art to its logical conclusion. Scattered books, shopping bags, and pens suggest that anyone could create such an illusorily effortless work. Far from lowering himself to the mundanity of the masses, this ‘deliberation of the lived object’ places the viewer on the artist’s pedestal. Simply purchasing a three pack of SparkleTM paper towels at the store, taking one out, and leaving the other two in the plastic on the table signals a simultaneous critique and embrace of intentionality that can be described as nothing but triumphant (A+, or certainly no lower than C-range).

It is definitely not an unaltered dorm room that has been submitted as a project due to laziness on the part of the artist. No. Great care has been taken in the construction of this work.

Attention to detail, ever Sheehan’s hallmark, truly shines in 372 Brown, and the subtlety of his messaging here evokes the masterpieces of Rauschenberg. Every element reveals a rich network of significances upon deep thought. Yellow cleaning gloves tossed on a chair. A yellow White Rock diet tonic water bottle, lidless. A yellow canister of Clorox wipes. A yellow sailboat on the mantle. Though at first these seem unrelated–their color draws them together in enthralling, well-thought-out thematic strokes. The sailboat evokes the naval tradition of swabbing the deck. The gloves, tonic water, and Clorox–simultaneously cleaning supplies and clutter–contemporize the sailboat referent. Should a space be tended constantly, kept spartan, or should the immediacy of life come first? Should a student complete his visual arts thesis in advance, or should he cobble together an artist statement at the last minute? 372 Brown insists on these questions, and in this realm there is no right and wrong.

A delivery flier peeking out from under a coffee table would be overlooked by the casual viewer, content to spend a mere half hour poring over the room. Upon glancing the flier, the viewer is invited to call Papa

Johns, order a large meatlover’s pizza, and eat it all before falling asleep on the couch on a Tuesday afternoon. A projector on the far wall and an inviting futon further Sheehan’s discourse on relaxation. An audience member empathizes with the lazy, the errant, the student who perhaps neglects to create a senior thesis and instead sucks the marrow out of this delightful environment. Cozy blankets beckon, and the viewer moves beyond empathy to sympathy. Were the viewer in charge of grading this student’s poor excuse for a thesis, the viewer would understand the student’s perspective and let them graduate.

Posters and flags attest to the work’s eclectic and involved construction–fusing the Avant Garde and mass media. A banner for an exhibit titled “Cézanne and the Modern” fittingly counterbalances a basketball hoop emblazoned with “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Always at odds in the mind of the student are the abstractions of academia and the applications of the real world. Can a professor lay claim to the validity of an education? Or will the student’s life after education be the true barometer–no grades necessary. 372 Brown presents this analytical invitation. The answer should be apparent to the observer.

Clutter and cleanliness are constantly at odds in this installation, the yin and yang of Sheehan’s Marie Kondo-influenced assemblage. On a material level, cardboard pervades. Boxes stacked on top of speakers and on the ground. On a thematic level, the piece is overcrowded with references and symbolic significance. The modernist grid appears and is forsaken in a chessboard strewn upon the central coffee table. The viewer is invited to place himself in the roles of the deeply anthropomorphic pieces and, perhaps, sit down, play a game, stay a while, and neglect the pressing tasks of the outside world. Be they writing harsh comments on a student’s assignment or conferring with the art department giving an advisee a failing grade, these concerns can wait.

In conclusion, Sheehan is a great artist. Critics of his work should be aware that Sheehan is a good guy who is about to enter a cutthroat job market. 372 Brown is definitely a long-planned and painstakingly executed installation and not his actual dorm room. Again, it is a triumph.