Executed in 1984, Cady Noland's Percussion and Cartridge Revolvers is a striking early work from her provocative and influential sculptural practice. A copy of Major Frederick Myatt's 1981 book An Illustrated Guide to Pistols and Revolvers, wrenched open along its spine, is mounted on wood and sporadically pierced with metal fixtures. Upon these individual hooks hang objects drawn from the domain of law enforcement--keychains, whistles, handcuffs. Almost exhibit-like in its presentation, the work exemplifies Noland's overarching desire to expose the structures, values and regimes that underpin American society. Described by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl as the "dark poet of the national consciousness," Noland has cultivated a particular fascination with themes of destruction, violence, criminality and psychopathology, (P. Schjeldahl, "Venice Anyone?," in Mirabella, September 1990, p. 93). The outlaw and the outsider become central protagonists in an oeuvre that seeks to investigate the divisions, ruptures and conflicts within the contemporary social landscape. "Violence used to be part of life in America and had a positive reputation," Noland has suggested. "...There was a kind of righteousness about violence--the break with England, fighting for our rights, the Boston Tea Party. Now, in our culture as it is, there is one official social norm--and acts of violence, expressions of dissatisfaction are framed in an atomized view as being 'abnormal'" (C. Noland, quoted in M. Cone, in Journal of Contemporary Art, Fall/Winter 1990). In the present work, the seemingly harmless nature of the book contrasts sharply with the potentially devastating consequences of weaponry, as indicated by Noland's line-up of jailer's paraphernalia.
Noland's use of real, everyday objects in Percussion and Cartridge Revolvers is an early example of the "readymade" aesthetic that has subsequently defined some of her most iconic works, including the arresting 1988 installation The American Trip (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Taking root in Marcel Duchamp's revolutionary found objects, Noland's bare-faced presentation of concrete artifacts aims to reflect our own objectification in today's media-obsessed culture. As the artist explains, "from the point at which I was making work out of objects I became interested in how, actually, under which circumstances people treat other people like objects. I became interested in psychopaths in particular, because they objectify people in order to manipulate them. By extension they represent the extreme embodiment of a culture's proclivities; so psychopathic behavior provides useful highlighted models to use in search of cultural norms," (C. Noland, ibid.). A student of sociology and theater, Noland is interested in the divisions created by contemporary American culture--between insiders and outsiders, between success and failure, between outlaw and celebrity. Observing the present work, we are both enthralled and perturbed by its vision of these very dichotomies.