Chris Mahonski's show at Open Space invites us to trace the origins of the mythic 'drifter'
By By Bret McCabe
Dec 02, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Richmond, Virginia-based artist Chris Mahonski has cheekily turned Open Space's small gallery into an inscrutable showroom. Maybe. It's difficult to tell. The exhibit, "Drifter History," features roughly two dozen found or fabricated walking sticks. One of the walking sticks looks like a relatively straight tree branch was shorn of twigs, affixed to the floor, and had an old one-gallon plastic bleach bottle attached to it at the top. Another looks like a slightly less straight branch attached to the ground with some kind of dirty fabric scrap wrapped around its top. Still another, with its metal pole and ergonomic grip, looks like it might've been acquired from an outdoor sporting goods store at some point in time. They're all standing at attention in the middle of the gallery. You can walk around them and, if so inclined, among them. The overall effect asks you to drink them in but doesn't inform you why you're looking. I felt they could be displays at a walking-stick store; a few are even mounted in the windows to entice passersby inside.
That "Drifter History" creates a space that's only kinda consumerist is what makes this show so sneakily smart. At first blush it almost feels more like a documentary project, a series of objects found/made to create a natural history exhibition of various kinds of walking sticks through the ages, cross culturally, whatever. But the show doesn't offer any kind of qualifying information—there's no wall text suggesting the dark wood stick with the rounded top is an example of this or that indigenous population. Nothing in the show's item list tries to convince you that the tall stick with the blaze of white paint is the customary decoration of some nomadic group. Accompanying the exhibition, there's a sheet of paper with photographic representations of the walking sticks printed on it. It's like a print advertisement you'd get at an auto dealership, a visual reminder of something you had your eye on.*
Mahonski is inviting us to take his exhibition title at face value and figure out what the history of the drifter is—and tease out why he might want us to know that history. So consider the drifter: a "person who moves from one place or job to another without a purpose of plan," says Merriam-Webster's dictionary, citing its first known use in 1897. This "aimless, irresolute, or vagrant way of life" definition is the fifth one cited in the Oxford English Dictionary—the three of the first four definitions refer to mining and boating—and cite its first known use in a 1908 article in London's Daily Chronicle newspaper: "The drifter drifts to California, and brings up there because . . . he can drift no further."
This distinctly American sense of the drifter as a loner roaming the New World is bound up with our country's mythology. The Western genre loves a drifter, even though for most of the time period associated with frontier America the word didn't mean the kind of aimless individual it does now. Noir—the mid 20th-century, urban update of America's Western mythos—loves its drifters too. By the time Vietnam rolls around and manufacturing jobs are leaving cities, the drifter becomes somebody who looks a lot like Rambo: communism fighter abroad, solitary defender of liberty at home.
Those are the mythic drifters; in everyday life we'd just call them bums. Think hobo with a bindle tied to his walking stick. It's a stock image of the imagination.
In the New York Times archives, the word "drifter" is associated with boating/yachting through most of the 19th century (and some ballooning at the turn of the century). The first instance of "drifter" being used in association with vagrancy comes from a June 17, 1907, article titled "Hoboes Defend Their Right to Rest." In this un-bylined piece the reporter speaks to an unnamed, unemployed man living among other unemployed men in lower Manhattan's Bowery area. They're talking about a news item wherein the hobos of Minneapolis were being swept up and forced to work by the railroad companies. One man is quoted: "They want to have labor colonies in every state? Now that is nothing more than the effort of a few captains of industry to deprive the laborer of the right to be idle and travel over the country when and how he pleases?"
I mention this article here because it's illuminating to see that at the time the word "drifter" is beginning to be associated with vagrancy, the men to whom it referred explicitly understood it in the context of labor's relationship to civic and corporate power. A 1908 Times piece by Owen Kildare titled "The Drifters of 'The Valley of Never Care'" is a long-form investigation of Bowery's impoverished populations, which he conservatively estimates to be 50,000. In the winter of 1909 a heavy snowfall meant that NYC's street-cleaning commissioner needed to hire 10,000 more workers to clear the city; the Times piece about this reports that recent college graduates pursued such employment, though "few Bowery drifters hired." A 1911 Times piece advocates the creation of vocational/trade schools as a way of stemming the tide of drifters, an idea that labor unions embraced.
In this context Mahonski is excavating the drifter from popular imagination and re-integrating the figure into the history of the political economy that created him. That I can't tell which walking sticks were found and which Mahonski made is comically rich—equating the creative process with abstract labor—and adds a conceptual layer to the installation that reinforces the idea, making this disarmingly simple show a shrewd feat of visual metonymy.
"Drifter History" is on display at Open Space through Dec. 12. For more info, visit openspacebaltimore.com.