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Spencer Merolla
Brooklyn, NY
Neighborhood: Gowanus

ARTIST STATEMENT: My recent work is concerned with bereavement: the tension between public and private grief, social customs and material culture of mourning, and objects as repositories of memory which both retain and transmit meaning.

Coal Comforts Coal Comforts is a concept bakery in which traditional baked goods are replaced with inedible versions made from coal ash. An evocative material, ash suggests both personal mortality (ashes to ashes, cremation) and communal annihilation by way of mass destruction. On the face of it, these baked goods look just like the real thing, but close inspection reveals that they are not what they seem. The familiar forms of cookies and cakes generally evoke fond memories, but the confounding of expectations about what is on offer at the “bakery” invites the viewer to question the nostalgic impulse itself. Nostalgia persuades us that what is familiar is innocuous, and in so doing masks a harmful reality: that our overindulgence in fossil fuels has been—and will be—our undoing.

Funeral Clothes Project: After a Fashion This series is made from clothing worn in mourning. Inspired by a personal experience with a dress I wore to my mother’s funeral and could never bring myself to put on again, I asked family and friends whether they too had clothing too tainted by association to wear. Slowly I began collecting clothes—sometimes decades old—that had languished unworn in the backs of closets, too distressing to wear and too sentimental to just throw away. Handling these testaments of loss is a powerful experience, as every garment comes with a story. Joining them together allows for the creation of a symbolic location in which otherwise private griefs become public and communal.

Hairwork: Mourning Art for Moderns In the Victorian era, mourning was a very public act. Rather than a private emotion or an embarrassment, grief was a popular motif for the arts and fashion. What strikes modern sensibilities as mawkish and overly sentimental behavior was, at the time, considered proof of a person's sincerity and morality. Ornamental hair jewelry, painstakingly crafted from the hair of loved ones, insisted the wearer embodied these virtues. This work plays with the tension between sincerity and emotional performance, imagining a contemporary practice in which moderns might socially engage with death's physicality. The dissonance of the craft (when transposed onto the emotional and aesthetic landscape of our times) draws attention to the ever-shifting boundaries of permitted public display.

That the hair must be severed from the body to be worked in this fashion is a compelling aspect of the practice for me. With few exceptions, the provenance of antique hairwork is now unknown. As a result, it loses its essential quality of referring to a specific person, while still being a distinctively “personal” object. In a sense, the story of hairwork is a testament not of our capacity to remember our lost loved ones, but of our ultimate inability to hold onto them.


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