Lilly McElroy, 2009 Was A Rough Year, 2010, stained-glass window, 66 x 48".

Lilly McElroy, 2009 Was A Rough Year, 2010, stained-glass window, 66 x 48".

Lilly McElroy

Thomas Robertello Gallery

Lilly McElroy, 2009 Was A Rough Year, 2010, stained-glass window, 66 x 48".

“2009 Was A Rough Year”—that’s both the title of Lilly McElroy’s recent exhibition at Thomas Robertello Gallery and a statement of fact. It was indeed a rough year. The stock market crashed. The housing bubble burst. Countless retirement incomes, jobs, and homes were lost in the fallout. In response, McElroy created a participatory memorial, asking friends and strangers to contribute their worst memories from those wretched twelve months. Photos and captions were to be submitted via a dedicated website ( established by the artist in advance of the show. With this material, McElroy then projected the images and texts in the gallery, alongside a large blue stained glass window, which enshrined the project’s title and colored the space with a melancholic, ecclesiastical light.

Perhaps surprisingly, only a handful of the more than one hundred responses McElroy received have anything to do with derivatives or subprime lending. On the contrary, most don’t seem specific to 2009 at all. The problems they bemoan—a stillborn son, a broken engagement, a Labrador with bone cancer, a cheating spouse, debilitating feelings of abandonment—happen every year. Every year is a rough year for someone. For a lot of someones.

What McElroy taps into is the need that all of us have to share grief, to broadcast complaints, to narrate painful self-reflection. Here, working with a self-selected group, she provides an opportunity for others to analyze the spectrum of ways in which trauma is represented, and further, what might qualify as trauma in the first place: On the one hand, an image of a house reduced to cinders offers straight evidence; on the other, skewed photos of emptied pill bottles only suggest what the text confirms—accidental overdose. There’s symbolic representation of the romantic sort: the window out of which a worthless, depressed year was spent staring. And of the hipster variety: a torn pair of lacy hot-pink panties on a wood floor, the contributor claiming to be too broke to buy new ones. Plenty of the images are arty—a few perhaps even intended as art, including a charming, brushy painting titled Foreclosure of Mom’s House, 2009, and a Web 1.0 digital drawing of a man smoking a spliff, puffing out a peace sign. “Art” also appears to be the only plausible explanation for a sprinkling of more baffling submissions, including photographs of an unremarkable airport terminal and of a West Virginia dairy bar.

The traumas themselves are just as varied, from the unimaginably atrocious to the heartbreakingly common to the (by comparison) offensively unimportant. However ungenerous, cross-evaluation is inevitable. Which is worse: the removal of massive uterine tumors and an emergency hysterectomy? A father’s heart attack and sudden death? Spilled milk on a laptop? McElroy could have edited out the confusing, ironic visuals and lame, self-indulgent stories with the goal of creating a seamlessly moving memorial. However, not only does such variation provide necessary pause in an otherwise overwhelmingly glum series of tragedies, it creates depth, setting the truly grave in relief against the merely bothersome.

But the best medicine for major tragedy isn’t minor misfortune; it is, as the cliché goes, humor. So McElroy also solicited jokes, performing them at stand-up comedy clubs across New York. In the gallery, footage of these gigs looped on a single flat-screen, and the jokes weren’t very funny. Yet we see McElroy continuing in earnest, night after night, to deliver them, with determination, confidence, and bravery. And mettle, more than laughs, is what’s truly needed to face the inevitable tragedies of life.

Lori Waxman