Ms. Conceptual

Artist Rachel Perry Welty finds the humor in everyday life. But where’s the punch?

A detail of Rachel Perry Welty's 'Sticker Paper.' A detail of Rachel Perry Welty's "Sticker Paper." (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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LINCOLN — Resourceful, professional, full of wit and visual pizzazz, Rachel Perry Welty’s exhibition at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum is also artistically lackluster. I look at it and, somewhere at the back of my mind, am conscious of boxes being ticked.

Here comes the enormously long wall covered with a billion photos of everyday items. Here comes the artist using herself in a video. Here comes the snippet of performance art. Here come the text-based works. And here comes the artist using her body in big, staged photographs with droll titles.

It’s all sassier and smarter than I’m making it sound. It’s also brilliantly presented: Full marks to the exhibition designers at the DeCordova. But the sense of recognition — “Ah, yes, so this is what a conceptual artist does! I remember now!’’ — is depressing, the overall effect like déjà vu.

Welty’s themes are more than legitimate. They’re profound; they speak to all of us. She addresses our culture of distraction and disposability; the anxieties inherent in mindless accumulation; commodification, reification, white noise, and, in the midst of all this, the feeble, funny, and poignant reckonings of the self.

But there’s something about the way she tackles these themes that’s toothless. You sense in her work a combination of idle curiosity, ironic relish, and crafty can-do, but no real punch.

Take an installation like “Deaccession Project,’’ the vast wall of more than 2,000 inkjet prints copied from photographs Welty keeps in scrapbooks. The photographs show items that Welty has discarded — one per day, systematically, since Oct. 5, 2005 — with a brief note at the bottom of each explaining the decision, and the item’s intended destination (“Trash,’’ for instance; or “Goodwill’’).

“Deaccessioning’’ is the museum term for the removal of objects from a permanent collection, so the title might trigger the kinds of questions raised elsewhere in Welty’s work: What separates an everyday object from an art object? Are our homes like museums? What do we hoard; what do we no longer have uses for; why?

For each day of the exhibition Welty plans to add one more photograph of a discarded item to the display. The end result, we’re informed, will be 78 feet long.

But compare the work, which is really an exercise in overwhelming banality, to the work of someone like Britain’s Michael Landy, who achieved notoriety in 2001 for a similar work called “Break Down.’’ Landy cataloged all his earthly possessions — more than 7,000 items, from photographs and furniture to birth certificate, passport, teddy bears and art works — and then put them on a conveyor belt in a vacant shop on London’s Oxford Street. The conveyor belt fed them into machines that systematically crushed and granulated them.

Welty might say that her work is getting at something different from Landy’s — and fair enough. My point is just that conceptual art usually gains from a certain extremity in its execution.

Ideas, after all, are just ideas: There’s nothing new under the sun. But strong conceptual art has the seed of wildness in it, something surprising and anarchic. That intensity is easy to see in Landy’s work; it’s missing from much of Welty’s.

She does, mind you, have an attractively wry sense of humor. Her video, “Karaoke Wrong Number (2005-2009),’’ shows Welty lip-syncing, in character, the words of all the voice messages mistakenly left on her answering machine since 2005. Some are left by men, some by women; some are long, some short. In all cases, Welty’s acting is good, and her timing first-rate. But it’s her deadpan expression in the gaps between the messages that is most eloquent. Life, it says, is exactly this random.

And yet, here, too, something is missing — some sense that the idea is going to deepen over the duration, rather than unspooling evenly like thread from the shuttle of a loom. Compare “Karaoke Wrong Number (2005-2009),’’ for instance, to the work of Britain’s Gillian Wearing, who uses similar lip-syncing strategies in videos that play with doubleness, inhibition, and trauma.

In Wearing’s videos, unlike Welty’s, you do not simply “get’’ the idea then wait for its laborious exposition to be over. The idea continually deepens, opening up psychological ambiguities and contradictions that wind their way inside your head, undoing all your preconceptions.

One of Welty’s more innovative works takes the form of a bank of 10 iPhones displayed along a wall. Each one shows changing updates on Welty’s Facebook page. All are from a single day — March 11, 2009 — when Welty updated her Facebook status once per minute for every minute of her waking hours.

Here’s a sample: “Rachel is thinking that an assistant for this project would have been damn fine . . . Rachel is deleting unwanted emails. . . . Rachel is refreshing often . . . Rachel is holding the camera in one hand and typing with the other . . . Rachel is losing track of time . . . Rachel is very here, very now . . . Rachel is aware . . . Rachel is at a loss for words.’’

Here again, the idea is natty enough, but the execution is crushingly dull. And while that may be the whole point, saying so does not relieve the sense of being trapped in a place you really don’t want to be — a place that leads nowhere in the imagination.

I mentioned Welty has visual flair, and it’s true. The first work encountered upon entering the exhibit, one of my favorites, is a star-shaped wall drawing made from colored twist ties called “New and Improved.’’ Another partition wall has a similarly vivacious design of thin, uneven circles made from fruit stickers. It’s called “Ripe Now.’’

A series of large works called “Soundtrack to my Life’’ laboriously sets out the lyrics of songs randomly encountered by Welty in public places. The lyrics are pasted onto paper in colorful, ransom-note typography for no particularly compelling reason. But they look vibrant and attractive.

Another series called “Lost in my Life’’ looks even better. Each work is a theatrically constructed photograph that shows Welty herself camouflaged against a backdrop of supermarket product boxes, fruit stickers, price tags, or take-out containers. They’re great fun. But they make a point, and . . . then you’re off the hook.

Art, I feel, should do everything it can to keep us on the hook. We deserve no better.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

'Lost in my Life (Twist Ties)' "Lost in my Life (Twist Ties)"
'Lost in my Life (Wrapped Books)' "Lost in my Life (Wrapped Books)"

RACHEL PERRY WELTY 24/7 At: DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum, Lincoln. Through April 24.781-259-8355.