Donald Fels

Sears at the Center

2011, Mixed media collages on paper

In the first decades of the 20th century, Sears Roebuck was an enormous presence in the lives of Americans, especially in the country’s heartland. Based in Chicago, the company became a literal conduit of material wellbeing out to families living on farms and in small towns and cities, supplying them with every imaginable product from the pages of the mammoth Sears catalogue.

In this series, done for an exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center in the heart of the city, Fels used vintage Sears catalogues and other Sears-produced materials to create a group of layered collages about what Sears delivered. The catalogues were a paper store; for years the only connection that customers had to Sears was through the pages of the catalogues. Each page was a window on a world, and the collages follow suit.

Accompanying the collages was an installation on the projection of Sears into the world.<em>Maquette for Installation at Chicago Cultural Center</em>

In 1906 Sears produced a series of 50 ‘stereoviews’ of the company at work, an early ‘infomercial’ to inculcate people around the country on how massive and important was the Sears operation in Chicago. Starting with these images, Fels produced a 60’ long look at how Sears showed itself to the world. Sears produced the stereoviews because they were popular parlor entertainment of the time, but the inherent spatiality of the media was essential to its message. Sears needed people to see the company, and its products, as existing in actual corporeal space, not just on thin catalogue pages.

Much as the internet has had to convince users that it could be trusted to deliver real goods, Sears paved the way with its catalog many decades earlier. Long before there were Sears stores or a Sears Tower, there was the catalog, with its hundreds of pages full of enticement. Trains brought carloads of manufactured goods into Chicago for Sears, trains took them back out to waiting customers. But it was the visual image of those goods that was the real Sears stock in trade. Sears produced very little of what it sold- but the vision of a better life that it offered up to Americans, was all theirs.