The photos are like breadcrumbs leading to artist Chrystal McConnell’s life.
But you have to look for the old found photos in between the pages of about 1,600 books — all of which are part of an installation, “play hard or go home,” opening this Thursday at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center.
McConnell, a Phoenix-based artist, is in the process of turning the Gough Gallery into a stylish home library, complete with a fireplace and elegant chairs (including a velvet love seat). She’s painted wall panels a rich blue and hand-stenciled a dressy gold pattern over it. The south wall of the gallery is lined with tall bookcases. Hardcover books — with their dust jackets removed — are arranged by color. The top shelf is lined with books with white spines, and the bottom is reserved for books with black spines. The rest of the books cluster together in a rainbow of shades: blue, red, yellow, orange, pink and purple.
“Part of the reason I want this rainbow of books is because I like the tension of this bright, happy feeling and then this darker emotional part of it,” McConnell said. “And you always hear that you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover. I’m actually asking you to judge a book by the cover, and playing off these inherent tensions.”
McConnell grew up in Los Angeles and left home at 17. She earned an associate’s degree in studio art at Western Oregon University, then landed at the University of Arizona, where she received a degree in photography. After earning her photography degree, McConnell was accepted into the San Francisco Art Institute. It was at the art institute, in her second year working on a Master of Fine Arts degree, that professor Lonnie Graham met with her and turned her studies upside down.
“You met with your professor probably like once a month,” McConnell said. “I was meeting with him, and I got my photos out and he looked at them and just went, ‘Eh, I don’t get it.’ I was like, ‘What? What do you mean you don’t get it?’ And he said, ‘I don’t get it. What else are you working on?’”
McConnell was taking an art class that focused on text instead of images. Graham was interested in that work. Really interested, McConnell said. But student and professor still conflicted over the direction she should take.
“Some art schools are technical schools, and some art schools are conceptual schools. We were talking and I remember I said something like, ‘What’s wrong with just putting a beautiful piece of art on the wall? I mean, if you think a work of art is beautiful, and you like it, isn’t that enough?’ He pretty much told me that, yeah, that’s nice and all, but he said that artists have a responsibility to make art that has meaning.”
McConnell said the conversation turned to family, and she found herself getting emotional. McConnell had a tough childhood, living in mobile homes and trailers with a mother she recalls as being image-obsessed and abusive. She no longer speaks to her mother or her father.
“I was telling myself, ‘No, don’t cry in front of him. He’s your professor. Don’t do it, just don’t do it.’ And he told me that whatever it was that was making me get choked up, that’s where my art was, or where it needed to be,” she said.
McConnell said she changed her thesis project. She started building a library. She collected books discarded by libraries, and she finally found a use for the old photos she bought at flea markets. She took a specific kind of photo — candid and posed photos of families or individuals processed on Kodak square prints.
“People always think these are Polaroids, but they’re 4-by-4 Kodak square prints,” McConnell said.
She placed the photos in the books, in the library pocket on the inside cover of each book. A page number is handwritten on the library pocket, and when the viewer (who might turn into a reader) flips to the page, they see four clear sleeves stuck over the text. The viewer slips the photo the corner sleeves and then discovers part of the photos have been cut out to reveal a carefully selected phrase (“she said nothing,” “you seemed pathetic.”)
As a master’s thesis, McConnell’s installation was a cluster of bookshelves with the books and photos — though the books also had sticky notes on meaningful pages. She’s read about 1,000 of the books in her project.
“Reading these books made me realize that I didn’t make things up,” McConnell said. “You know, when you’re a kid, you don’t always see things the way they are. A lot of these books ended up being about child psychology. I’d be reading them and bawling, and I realized that I didn’t imagine things and that I was in abusive situations.”
She passed her thesis defense and got her degree. But the project grew into an installation that has traveled to about 10 galleries. Since its inception, the library has gone from bookshelves and books to walls, luxurious furniture, big, empty picture frames and, in spaces that allow her to hang them, at least one crystal chandelier. McConnell deliberately creates a space that oozes affluence, refinement and privilege. Every object in the installation is a found object, down to the fireplace poker, shovel and hand broom next to the mantel and faux lighted logs.
“Artists tend to create the things they wish they had,” she said. “I grew up in trailers and apartments. In a way, this installation is me creating the home I wish I had.”
While she chose the books at random, she noticed a sort of synchronicity as she arranged them according to color. The red books have a lot of urgent, aggressive or angry titles. And the blue books? They’re about and by politicians — people who have closets of blue blazers. At random, some books are pulled out. Those are the books McConnell said she means for viewers to take out and open.
“Some people walk in and look around. They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, a library.’ And that’s totally fine. Some people walk in and they pull out a book and figure it out right away,” McConnell said.
In its current form, “play hard or go home” is drawn from her life and her childhood vulnerabilities. But McConnell said she’s been intentional.
“I never use full sentences [in the photo cut-out composition],” she said. “I left it kind of vague because I think that makes all of this universal. And where on the photos I’ve cut them out is intentional, too. In some of the photos, you’ll notice I’ve cut out the eyes. All of it means something.”
The installation is something of a scavenger hunt. Choose a title, open the book and follow the clues. A lot of the clues follow trails into emotional shadows, but there is humor and levity. (See if you can find Danielle Steele titles, or books that lovingly document baseball stats.)
“Sometimes I say this installation is an interactive self-portrait,” McConnell said. “It’s a reflection of me and my life, but you can see yourself in it, too.”