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A triangle on top of a rectangle: it’s an easily recognizable symbol, a complex form in the repertoire of millions of preliterate children making sense of their world with paper and crayon; and it’s a shape ubiquitous in a major exhibition now at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art. In No Place Like Home, curator Jeff Lambson has rummaged through the substantial collection of Atlanta homebuilders and philanthropists Sue and John Wieland (whose collecting focus reflects the subject of their professional lives) and has assembled a dense and multifaceted exhibition that brings to Utah an international roster of more than 60 contemporary artists, many of whom are drafted from the top tiers of the post-war period. That period is the same in which the American concept of the home, both for interior consumption and as cultural exportation, has become synonymous with the single-family suburban house; and, in fact, when we speak of “home” here, we are talking, with few exceptions, about a house—no apartments, yurts, palaces or tents. In the half dozen galleries this exhibition occupies, the house, in its many forms, becomes a symbol for personal and public concerns, a locus for dramas dark and nostalgic, and the repository for our fondest memories and loftiest aspirations.
The simplified symbol of rectangle and triangle—or its three-dimensional equivalent, the cube with pitched roof—appears throughout the exhibit, whether in its most basic form, as in the case of Joel Shapiro’s untitled bronze (from a series of works exploring basic shapes), or distorted, as in Wolfgang Laib’s elongated wax casting. It may be representative simply of itself, as in Roy Lichtenstein’s cast aluminum piece, which appears concave or convex depending on your angle of viewing but remains a classic portrayal of the post-war home; or form part of a larger narrative, as when Tony Cragg puts four of the structures together to create “Village,” and Enrique Martinez Celaya embeds a similar structure inside a rosebush to create an image evocative of, among other things, The Wizard of Oz.
Even when this simple structure is not someone’s home, we have a hard time not seeing it as such. Richard Artschwager’s photograph of a simple house-like structure in the Great Salt Lake looks odd precisely because it calls to mind a house, but appears in such a remote and alien place. Olafur Eliasson’s hut series, tiled out in BYU’s gallery in a manner similar to his photographs of volcanoes in UMOCA’s 2014 Bikuben exhibit, evokes something similar: found in desolate and remote parts of Iceland, these huts are designed as rescue shelters, highlighting the most basic function of a home.
In its more poetic form, that sense of shelter becomes refuge, with the house (or home) our most common delineator of space, separating the private from the public, the domestic from the external. Rachel Whiteread’s cement casting of a door functions as a sculptural synecdoche for this refuge and retreat. The evidence of a deadbolt, meant to keep the outside world out, and the mail slot, a portal for communication between the exterior and the interior, marks it as a home’s front door, a liminal object that both invites and excludes.
The desire to step inside a house is strong, an act of intimacy as enticing for a housewife attending a historic home tour as it is for her husband, peering a little too closely into a neighbor’s window on a winter night’s stroll. This may be why a dollhouse, like the one created by Robert Gober, is so appealing. It’s hinged walls allow us to peel back the facade of a house to explore its interior, like a child peering into an ant farm. When something similar happens in the photographs documenting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecutre” process, the results are unsettling. The late artist, active in the ’70s, would remove precise sections from a building “as a commentary on urban decay and the end of the American dream.” In this case it’s a multilevel house in Niagara Falls that was slated for demolition and which, after Matta-Clark is done with it, appears like a corpse laid bare on the autopsy table.
Though millenials may be trending otherwise, the single-family house is still the home of choice for the majority of Americans, making it synonymous with the “American Dream.” And suburbia, the natural habitat for this dream, has become infused with a number of clichés, not the least of which is the domesticated American male, seen in Greg Stimac’s trio of photographs, cutting the front lawn (one of them aptly titled from its location “Oak Lawn, Il.”). In his own series of photographs, Jim Hodges explores the suburban neighborhoods of his hometown, Spokane, Washington, concentrating on the small, mundane homes of the postwar period; but as clichéd as the structures at first may appear, his is a warm portrait focusing on the small touches that add individuality to these pre-fab homes.
Neighborhoods as well as homes take on individual characteristics, even when they are part of a more homogenized trend: the fenced yards so common in Utah would look foreign in many parts of the East, where if anything separates one yard from the next it’s a dash of shrubbery. This aspect of Mitch Epstein’s photograph, depicting one such neighborhood in Raymond, West Virginia, where the back of one house is seen through the yard of another, is already strange for a viewer in the Beehive State, but this aspect goes almost unnoticed because of the massive coal plant that looms above both yards. Epstein’s visual is a documentation of a situation ripe for critique, but not one as easy to make as it may at first seem: for without the jobs (not to mention the electricity) generated by the one player in this scene, you wouldn’t have the others. Critiques of suburbia are often the complaints of the haves rather than the have-nots.
Suburban sprawl has undoubtedly meant an increasing portion of our open land has been swallowed up to feed the desire for more and more subdivisions, which has fed another cliché: suburbia as the American nightmare. In two photographs on display here, one as damp as the other is dry, Edward Burtynsky critiques America’s building craze as one part of his larger, environmentally-centered work. His “Verona Walk, Naples, Florida, USA,” is an aerial shot of a neighborhood designed to maximize the luxurious lifestyle of beachfront property; it is juxtaposed with a barely begun or newly abandoned housing development plopped in the middle of the Arizona desert. Neither scenario is sustainable in the face of climate change, the water so needed by one development destined to swamp the other. As is so often the case with Burtynsky, however, the work falls victim to its own beauty, more likely to seduce the eye than to agitate the mind.
Something similar happens in Kota Ezawa’s “Flood,” a print based on a photograph of flooding in Georgia in 2009. Illuminated by a lightbox, its details reduced to their bare essentials, the print is neither horrific nor devastating, but poised and pleasant, a disaster turned into an aesthetically pleasing object (something French Impressionist Alfred Sisley did a century before).
Martha Rosler is much more forthright in her critiques, invading the home with her human-made, rather than natural, disasters. In the past half-century, imperial America has had an ever-increasing presence abroad, and has been able to do so by keeping Americans distanced from that involvement, safely ensconced in their “American Dream.” Rosler’s haunting collages break into the home to juxtapose images of war and destruction within the intimacy of home and hearth.
More subtle, but equally unsettling narratives of the home’s darker side continue downstairs (the exhibit is awkwardly split on two levels of the museum, without a connecting staircase). Marcus Harvey’s painting of a toddler behind a frosted glass door distorts and masks the child’s expression enough that it becomes unclear whether he is curious or distressed, peering in or kept out. Gregory Crewdson’s “Dream House,” a series of photographs that uses professional actors and tropes from the cinema to create crepuscular scenes that suggest but never explain narratives of melancholy, desire, and alienation, suggest that precisely because the home is our place of refuge, it can become witness to our deepest fears and anguish.
The basement also is home to one of the more imposing images in the exhibit, Michael Eastman’s “Shotgun House, New Orleans.” Shot in 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina, Eastman’s image depicts a small, decaying abode in a late evening glow. It is stately, yet haunting, the same simple structure we see throughout the exhibit, but adorned with cornices and porticoes, however dilapidated. It seems draped in majesty and melancholy and one can’t help but wonder what its interior holds and has held.
No Place Like Home itself holds much more, far too much, in too many aesthetic and conceptual nooks and crannies, to explore in any single sitting. It brings to Utah a plethora of works by prominent contemporary artists exploring a subject in which any viewer—the pun seems unavoidable—will feel right at home. It seems a fitting farewell for the curator, who recently announced that he’ll soon be making his new home in Denver.
This review appeared in the November 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.