When Ben Werther was 8 years old, he’d head to the field at the back of his elementary school to dig in the dirt.
“People would play soccer or football, or just try to kill each other, whatever it is you’re doing in third grade,” he recalled, speaking in his New York studio space in the basement of Amanita gallery, where he recently opened a new solo show. “I’d be in the midst of that, sitting in the dirt, digging for Indian money.”
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He corrected himself. “I know that’s bad,” he continued. “That’s what it was called there. The scientific name for it is crinoid fossils.”
Werther had unearthed a bounty of the remains of an ancient marine animal that developed 300 million years before dinosaurs. These fossils can be found in abundance across the American Midwest and in Nashville, where Werther grew up. They joined Werther’s collection, which also included four leaf clovers, butterflies, crawdads, and books about faeries. These items held for him a kind of hypnotic force; they were imbued with an intense, wordless meaning.
“It’s a shame to lose that relationship to the world,” Werther said. “Once I learned about art, I think I lost that. It’s almost like, when you don’t know what to do with [those objects], when you don’t know how to process it, you have a deeper understanding of it.”
Werther’s work is still deeply connected to that subconscious impulse to collect. His Amanita show, titled “Everyone is a Genius,” is the product of this impulse, with 26 pieces derived from as parking notes, that is, messages left on one’s windshield after a particularly bad parking job.
Werther first encountered parking notes in a zine called FOUND Magazine. People from all over the world could send in things they had come across, and FOUND would publish them. The magazine first started in 2000, when one of its founders discovered a note under his windshield wiper. The note’s writer had clearly been meant for someone else. “Mario,” it read, “I fucking hate you you said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? you’re a fucking liar I hate you I fucking hate you Amber ps page me later”.
When Werther picked up FOUND at McKAY’s, a giant used bookstore in Nashville, he felt attracted to a section they had on parking notes.
“Roses are red, violets are blue, you fucking suck at parking,” reads one note, with a big heart surrounding the text and a flourished “xoxo.” That became the source for Werther’s 62-inch-tall painting XOXO (2023), which he created by scaling the note to size and etching out the copy onto a Styrofoam board that he’d sourced from Home Depot, where he works. He then laid an unprimed canvas on top of the foam board and made a rubbing with crayon.
“It didn’t start as conceptual,” Werther said, “I just had this subconscious attraction to the notes.”
In time, though, he decided to make works about the messages, looking up the hashtag #niceparking or #parkingnotes on social media, and from 2018 to 2020 managed to collect hundreds of them. Werther’s concerns as an artist are derived from an anthropological interest in what he calls “armature for social mechanisms,” the cultural motifs that connect people to each other and to places, and inform their understanding of the world.
In an increasingly digital world, however, what has attracted Werther the most is the circulation of motifs that betray a communal nostalgia for a time when people still had a tactile relationship to cultural production. Even ephemera as seemingly unremarkable as parking notes can produce a fascination that goes beyond the funny bit of text the note contains. In turn, Werther has his own urge to process and synthesize not just the parking note but the attraction and nostalgia that led people to pass them along.
Werther’s means of luring the digital into a real world object has its roots in a small museum along a hiking trail in Nashville. Less an institution and more a rest stop, the small museum has vending machines at its entrance and the inside is covered in dust. “It smells like no one goes in there, you know?” said Werther.
Inside are local artifacts like belt buckles and bullets from the Civil War, as well as natural objects, like the skin of a copperhead or a bird’s nest. A hyper-local collection, it has mostly been forgotten. Still, it fulfills an obligation to provide a place with its own history and context.
“I’ve always just thought that that was just such a great way to think about making and displaying art, treating [pieces] as artifacts and trying to articulate history,” Werther said. “The Natural History Museum does it the same way, but I think a lot of the aesthetics of their shows are inaccessible to a guy like me that can’t make an animatronic T. rex or something.”
The works from “Everyone is a Genius” are rubbings for a reason, recalling those initial elementary-school efforts to index the world by placing a piece of paper over a leaf and running a crayon across it.
Speaking to Werther, it’s hard to believe that he has lost that metaphysical connection with the world that he felt when digging for crinoid fossils. Loving objects, wanting to make them, creating an interior understanding of the world through a thing’s physical form, it’s as if Werther’s artistic impulse comes from an urge to fill a vacuum left behind by social phenomena which are experienced but cannot be held. Each piece its own fossil, a record of the world it came from.
Hoard is a monthly column on collectibles, collections, and collectors outside of the fine arts by Shanti Escalante-De Mattei.