Update: Columnist Russell Jaffe is holding an art sale of his own! Details available here.
There are two things to know about Sharpless Auctions when you enter, and they both have to do with art: The first is that you have to be prepared to know how unprepared you are, and the second is that the meaning of it all is abstract and pretty much entirely up to you, regardless of the fact that the roads to that meaning mean you’re probably going to end up spending some kind of money.
Located at 5049 Herbert Hoover Hwy. NE on Interstate 80 (you can see the yellow and blue sign from the highway in either direction), Sharpless started in downtown Iowa City in 1972 but moved out to its current location in ‘88. The auction house is comprised of three warehouses that serve as massive showcases of products—new and old, personal and pragmatic—that have all been used. Very used. And inside it’s like a numerically organized apocalypse where you can stay as long as you’d like between 5 and 9 p.m. on most Wednesdays.
Sharpless has four sections. The first two warehouses connect and are carefully littered with furniture, electronics, pop-culture ephemera and general household flotsam and jetsam. The long tables of trash and treasure constitute a consistent salvo of caller noise and culturally iconic artifacts. People pick up books, touch stuffed animals, spin dishes and furniture around with the eyes of true collectors, their inner collection-procurer hard at work deciding what fits in their space, their inner decorator determining just the right spot (or pile) where every object belongs. The fourth section lies between the first two warehouses and the third. In this outdoor, no-man’s-land area there are usually bikes, used vehicles like cars or campers, lawnmowers of all size and oversized metal or wood building materials.
It’s the third warehouse that might be the strangest—the “not fucking around” warehouse—filled with tools that range from spades and rakes to chainsaws and augers; full-sized industrial kitchen equipment or the kinds of things that might be central to a build-your-own apocalypse bunker. There are many older men in hats and camo jackets or overalls out here.
At Sharpless, tired folk sit on soon-to-be-sold furniture and talk about screwjobs, maybe-prices, brimmed-hat frustrations, time. Time in how long the auction is taking, time in annoyance, time in weather patterns, time in fall’s darkening evening coming on faster than the cold creeping over the massive gravel driveway, wind whipping around the hanger-like doors of the warehouses. Obscenely massive sausages and tenderloins are available outside on a big grill, and inside tonight a tan, blonde teenager with a cross necklace sells slices of muted-colored pie and fried favorites like onion rings, fries and gizzards—of course, no art’s function is complete without gizzards—they’re like fried bits of chicken-rubbed tire.
The meaning of this all is more abstract than meets the eye. Sharpless serves a functional purpose provided you’re willing to buck the traditional purchase model of set prices in order to accept potentially decades-old used items. Every item ends up being sold to the highest bidder, even if bids sometimes don’t make it over a single dollar. There’s a socially lo-fi competition for everything, just like you might see at, well, an art auction. And simply watching the presentation and social spectacle of it all makes it worth the price of admission, which, like many art galleries, is nothing.
As far as art goes, I have a special relationship to Sharpless. I’m a frequent attendee since I moved to Iowa City in 2009. Once, for $2, I picked up an overstuffed but unsuspicious, unmarked, black three ring binder filled completely with magazine cut outs and articles of David Lee Roth. The Van Halen hair metal star stares back from under the glossy pages with intention after intention—crazy, goofy face here, stoic heartthrob face there. He wears pants with a lot of colors and fringe, and in almost every picture he’s within arm’s length of a woman’s boobs. When people see this binder I tell them that it’s a kind of love poem to the obsessive, to the collector, to the hanger-on to fringe narratives.
Electronics from Sharpless became the canvases I used in my debut art show, HELL-Ø-SCAPES, which led to that ridiculous bomb scare this summer when a portable TV I’d picked up in November ended up derailing the end of Arts Fest. For the show, I hired a Sharpless auctioneer, Steve, to come and call that jibberish “bababababaTWODOLLARSDOIHAVETHREEDOIHAVETHREE blalabalblaFOURDOLLARS” fast-speak associated with the traditional auction. There’s a communicative art to calling in the same way there’s one for yodeling or throat singing, or even calligraphy or cursive. Steve was a fantastic guy and he taught me a lot about the art of the speedy call—a way to get through auctions quickly with marked tension and drama to boot.
There’s something beautiful about this great repurposing, this veritable afterlife for objects that we understand in terms of love, things that were meaningful; things that served practical purposes in day-to-day life; things that were sublime. There’s a frequent link between a kind of zen living and living minimally, but what about living maximally? What about living amongst the energies of sometimes friendly, sometimes scary mountains of stuff that have characterized and flavored our memories? What about the chant-like drone of endless static? Isn’t there something socially evolutionary about our noisy, demanding culture and finding oneself standing at a kind of crossroads of blaring car horns, shining fast-moving advertisements or people talking into cell phones or staring at the glare of mobile screens? So it is all encapsulated at Sharpless, as functional a multi-layered performance space as there can be in 2013.
“Sure, Sharpless is a good place for art. It’s a good place for a lot of things,” says Sharon Dooley, one of the women who assigns numbers to auction-goers and rings up their purchases at the end of the night. We talk about the wooden, marble-topped bedroom dresser with a sink and faucet built into it within eyeshot of the front desk, and she says something that may as well be about going to an art gallery.
“You can always find something fantastic. The only things you won’t find here are animals, livestock. You’ll never know what you might find here—there aren’t many good surprises anymore.”
Behind me, no one bids on a ‘90s tube TV. “No value,” the auctioneer declares. “Move on.”
Russell Jaffe is a taciturn man doing taciturn things.