A Well-Intended Misunderstanding


Inkjet print

30 x 43 in. (76.2 x 109.2 cm)

Collection of the Akron Art Museum

Gift of the Artist


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Like the rest of Jerry Birchfield’s work, A Well-Intended Misunderstanding is derived from the continuous flow of his unceasing artistic practice. One immediate connection comes in its being situated within Birchfield’s broader suite of works, collectively titled “Back and Fill.” This term refers to a series of small movements for maneuvering a sailboat through a narrow area; the artist was drawn to this strategy because it seemed to match his own careful, iterated working process. In his statement on “Back and Fill,” he notes that “Materials are excavated from and reabsorbed by detritus, leftovers and castoffs generated by events within the studio. These materials are swept up, poured out, assembled, rearranged, staged, photographed, traced, cut, encased, built up, torn down and stripped back. Through a process of framing and imaging, final works embody a reciprocal relationship between the above-mentioned materials and actions performed within the studio space.” A Well-Intended Misunderstanding thus emerged from this generative milieu. The particular print proposed for acquisition is one of at least three different photographs titled, A Well-Intended Misunderstanding. Each shows the same slab, covered and restaged in different ways, but always leaning in the same spot in and photographed the same way. Birchfield has shared that the title for the works was inspired by an encounter with a spider, which he describes this way: I opened my window to find a dead spider stuck to the bottom of the window frame as it rose. At first, I thought it was alive and I worried. I took a position of defense based on the potential for the spider’s will to act against my own. It misinterpreted an innocent gesture on my part as a threat; I misinterpreted its misinterpretation as a threat – a double and mutual well-intended misunderstanding. Then I realized it was dead and motionless and I worried. I felt a sense of remorse. I wondered "did I commit this murder unknowingly last time I shut the window or is this the place that the spider chose to die – crawled to a quiet place away from everything, between the sill and the frame, to reevaluate, to rest, and drift off." In the time it took for the window to rise, the spider’s life had flashed before my eyes – at once alive and active, a moment later, at rest and still. I do not fully understand how these events occurred, but I can attempt to imagine the multiple courses that led there. If it is permissible to risk deflating this poetic account with interpretation, many aspects of the artist’s experience can be related to the photograph at hand. The detritus that covers the slab and populates the image is at once motionless, as seen in the photograph, and yet within Birchfield’s manner of working it carries further potential—like the spider, it seems to be somewhere between alive and dead. Birchfield’s tender concern for the spider also applies to the objects that he works with—by continuing to reuse and reanimate them, he staves off the sense of remorse that might come from the stillness of a photograph or a fixed and finalized work of art. Another significant well-intentioned misunderstanding in A Well-Intended Misunderstanding is the possibility that this picture of real objects might be interpreted as abstraction. In another related statement titled “An Inside for an Outside,” Birchfield notes, on the one hand, that when he photographs something “its purpose here is to be seen by the camera, as the photographic and nothing more.” This tendency can be so strong as to make objects appear flat, without any context other than a pictorial one, and thus abstract. But, on the other hand, inescapably, “The debris is real, and so is the space in which it exists.” Viewers can tell that these objects have a history, even if it is not visible in the picture itself. Vacillation between these two forms of interpretation creates another form of perpetual motion in Birchfield’s work. Ultimately, Birchfield intends for his work to be wistfully evocative as well as heady and intellectually charged. When they see A Well-Intended Misunderstanding, individual viewers may not register the same associations that have occurred to the artist, but they are likely to sense the work’s suggestive density, as well as the sincere artistic commitment behind its masterful technical execution, its scintillating level of detail, and its beauty.