Candy Jernigan: Gauloises, R.X. Nov. 13 1983, 1983, colored pencil, stamped ink, and collage on board, 10 by 8 inches; at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York.  

Candy Jernigan (1952–1991) made art about overlooked or cast-off things, transforming ordinarily unlovely objects into images and sculptural works of great wonder and wit. In one of her best-known pieces, she turned hundreds of crack vials and caps she discovered on the streets of the East Village in the mid-1980s into a meticulously notated multicolored collage. The intimate show of her work at the Wattis Institute focused on her drawings, allowing her less sensational subjects and remarkable draftsmanship to take center stage.

The eighty or so drawings show Jernigan directing the same genuine curiosity to inhabitants of the natural world (dead bugs, leaves) as to the detritus of the modern metropolis (crushed cigarette packs, soda can tabs). Three small undated compositions depicting green bug-eaten leaves are uncannily realistic. Even if the subjects are browning at the edges, there is a kind of springtime waxiness to their surfaces that is both related to and somehow separate from the materials of their creation. The modest toolkit that Jernigan used to produce many of the works on view is conveyed by the show’s subtitle, “A Couple of Pencils and Some Paper,” which was borrowed from one of the drawings. 

Jernigan deftly parodies the visual language of the scientific illustrator in compositions that resemble scientific charts. She has drawn everything in these works, from the subjects of her studies (buttons, beans, and cigar labels, to name only a few) to accompanying diagrams, arrows, and other graphics. While her presentational style implies rationality, it is put to absurd ends. In the large drawing Ham n’ Cheese (1988), she presents three types of ham and three blocks of cheese, separating them into two rows. At the bottom, she diagrams all the possible permutations of the ham and cheese alongside a handwritten caption that notes the date and location of each item’s purchase and explains unceremoniously that at the end of the drawing session “they were tossed.” 

In New York City: 24 Cheez Doodles (1986), the show’s only oil painting, Jernigan arranged the bright orange snacks in a grid whose precision evokes that of a Wayne Thiebaud pastry case. Theatrically lit, they cast long shadows and seem to wriggle, as if straining to push up from the ground. Viewed up close, they appear to be both very real and pure fantasy. Jernigan’s painted representations and the objects themselves, as her punning title points out, are both cheese “doodles.”

A seldom-exhibited group of fifty-nine acrylic drawings of vases and other vessels closed the exhibition. Jernigan made these works between 1990 and 1991, at the end of her struggle with cancer. The objects, of different sizes, shapes, and materials, all sit in the lower fifth of their frames. Bright backlight throws many of them into silhouette against gray, ocher, red, or blue grounds. In some of the drawings there is a luminous radiance that makes the shadows look more solid than the objects themselves; in others, the vessels tip sideways, as if expressing personality or psychological weightiness. Throughout these and the other drawings in the show, Jernigan’s close attention to otherwise mundane objects gives them a kind of life. At first glance, the images seem to represent the world as it is, but in each there is also a fleeting, destabilizing glimpse behind reality’s mask.