Inside the Rosenbach Museum & Library’s “Thy Father’s Spirit” exhibition, the air is thick with an unexpected smell: rubber. The source? Artist Jessica Deane Rosner’s The Ulysses Glove Project, a monumental installation of hundreds of rubber kitchen gloves onto which the entire text of James Joyce’s celebrated novel has been copied, word by painstaking word. The gloves — all 310 of them — dangle from the ceiling in an undulating spiral like a giant yellow chandelier.
“Thy Father’s Spirit” is the companion exhibition to the museum’s celebration of Bloomsday, the daylong worldwide celebration of Ulysses held every June 16. While “Thy Father’s Spirit” includes several pages from Joyce’s original handwritten manuscript touching on the subject of fatherhood, it’s Rosner’s art that takes center stage.
Though it flirts with conceptual art, The Ulysses Glove Project is nonetheless a deeply personal piece. On one level, it expresses Rosner’s passion for the written word. “My other artwork has been largely text-based,” she explains; “a lot of drawings with writing on them.” Writing is a major influence for Rosner beyond her artistic life; her day job is, fittingly, at a library. On another level, though, the Glove Project is a kind of memorial to her late father. “He loved Ulysses, and he always went to Bloomsday when he could,” Rosner says. “No one else in the family cared about it — it was his thing.” With her installation, she’s found a way to make it her thing, too. “Thy Father’s Spirit,” indeed.
The Glove Project, however, was also born out of Rosner’s frustrations. One centered on the career limitations of an artist working in smaller formats. “If you are an artist and you do very small work, it is very hard to get anywhere in your career,” she explains. “So I was trying to come up with something I could do that would be big but also true to myself.” Another was the reality of being a feminist in an art world still largely dominated by men, who, says Rosner, don’t have to worry about nearly as many things as female artists do. “And so it was my project of not worrying,” she says of the gloves, and that attitude informed her process: Her handwriting shifts from script to print throughout the piece, and she made no attempt to rectify mistakes in her copying or to restart miscopied gloves. Instead, the errors are merely notated with asterisks. The Ulysses Glove Project does not shy away from its inconsistencies, but celebrates them.
Rosner admits that her choice of medium was inspired in part by its attention-capturing potential. “I Googled ‘rubber gloves’ and ‘art’ and there was nothing,” she says with a lingering sense of disbelief. “And that never, ever happens. Google anything and ‘art’ and it’s already been done before.” But the original impetus for using rubber gloves was more organic. “I have a memory of looking into my long, skinny kitchen and seeing my rubber gloves — which I always, always have — and thinking, ‘Hmm, you know, there’s something.’” The gloves also build a thematic bridge between her body of work and Ulysses. Cleaning and cleanliness are important subjects in Rosner’s art, which often examines her identity as a mother and housewife. These concepts are relevant to Joyce in that his writing was so often considered unclean, Ulysses even being banned from U.S. publication for a time due to obscenity laws. “It just seemed to be simpatico,” says Rosner. “It made sense. Everything kind of clicked into place. And I just kind of took a leap of faith and started to do it.”
Doing it was no simple feat. Copying the 783 pages of her library’s edition of Ulysses onto hundreds of rubber gloves took nearly two-and-a-half years, and its completion shocked nearly everyone around her. Still, Rosner doesn’t regret a moment of that tedium: “This project is exactly what I had in mind. It’s done everything I wanted it do, personally and professionally,” she gushes. “It just was the right thing.”
Through Sep. 1; conversation with Jessica Deane Rosner, Thu., June 13, 6 p.m., $10, Rosenbach Museum & Library, 2008-2010 Delancey Place, 215-732-1600, rosenbach.org.
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