What could the adjective “homemade” possibly mean to someone who is homeless? At the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the first of 13 exhibits offers an answer of sorts. Back in 1993, artist Willie Baronet, finding himself struggling with the dilemma of how to react to homeless persons who held signs asking for help, came up with a solution that he hoped would turn a humiliating experience for the sign maker and an awkward one for him into a positive encounter. He offered to buy the signs, paying whatever was asked. Three decades later he has amassed not only a vast collection of them, but some unexpected friendships and perspective on their predicament. “What does it mean to be homeless, practically, spiritually, emotionally?” he asks, and begins his answer with another question: “Is home a physical place, a building, a structure, a house? Or is it a state of being, a sense of safety, of being provided for, of identity? I see these signs as signposts of my own journey … of reconciling … my judgments about those experiencing homelessness.”
The requests for help he displays demonstrate both the resources of the homeless and the material wealth of American society. Once again, it’s possible to imagine someone in the third world feeling envy at the copious supply of cardboard and markers to which Baronet’s collection testifies. But their evident literacy should come as no surprise, nor that so many of them are clever, like the one who wrote “Obama wants change … I could use some too!” or “We smell … need Hotel.” After all, the U.S. probably has the world’s best-educated homeless population, and it speaks volumes in proof that something is seriously wrong that accidents so often decide who wins and who loses here.
UMOCA isn’t the only venue in Salt Lake City that has such a large room as their Main gallery, but thanks in no small part to the generosity of the Diane & Sam Stewart Family Foundation the ambitious staff are able to regularly make good use of the space, as was evident when they invited mural artists to strut their stuff on a truly architectural scale. Today, as one crosses the steel bridge to the stairs, it immediately becomes evident that Haimaz, Heim Hjem, Häm, Home is another of their inclusive explorations of artists responding to a vital social issue. For example, there is the tall, balloon-framed structure, visible from almost anywhere in the museum, that houses the untitled photographic quilts of Niko Krivanek, who spread his extended family photos on tables that rest on sawhorses, thus completing the metaphor of houses, lives, and families as things that remain under construction.
Surely a major source of popular images of homes and the lives lived there must come from films and television — from Hollywood, so to speak. For Frank Poor, this central role creates a means to critique those questionable notions. His “House, Milton GA” resembles a film set comprised of facades: building fronts that at best point to interiors and lives that are located in another city, if not another state. Another artist who combines photography and constructed sets, Roscoe B. Thické IlI uses windows as framing devices to tell the story of “1402 Pork N Bean Blue at The Intersection of Two Deaths,” whose multi-generational protagonists gaze back at viewer-voyeurs from both still and video images of their real lives.
Surely one of the most popular artifacts of contemporary folk surrealism is the commonly-seen sign, often illegally tacked to a telephone pole, that reads “Apprentice Wanted” and promises some scarcely-conceivable compensation, usually in thousands of dollars. What makes it surreal is that it’s inevitably hand-written in marker pen on card stock, which is of course the standard public medium of leading entrepreneurs. A variation, evidently only too well known to Tracy Snelling, is the also underwhelming offer to “Buy Your Home for Cash.” Snelling’s version, “We Buy Homes for Cash,” features a scale model of such a big-bucks operation, a tabletop-mounted mobile home, its wheels removed and a porch added, with the sign hand-painted on the roof. Only one of the many ways the naive can become homeless, such offers will almost certainly lead to one or another of the great swindles of our time: the kind of licensed theft that saturates real estate, from the law that says if someone sells your house illegally, the law protects the buyer and the victim (you) must pursue the person who committed the fraud instead, all the way up to the tax principle that allowed a recent ex-president to write a dubious loss off against what he otherwise owed his country for ten consecutive years.
Fortunately for anyone who might think this is paranoia, part of Tonica Johnson’s larger project, “TITLE OF WORK,” examines and exposes the predatory treatment of Black homeowners during the 1950s and 1960s, during which, as explained in “Inequity for Sale (7250 S. Green St.),” houses were sold via contracts that extorted far more cash than the value of a subject home, and frequently the contract was then voided and the would-be buyer was evicted before they could qualify to own the home they thought they were buying. Signs Johnson conceived on the model of “Kodak Suggested Photo Spots,” seen in places like Disneyland, which suggest the best places to take a picture (and the best picture to take), have been put in place in front of actual homes that were “legally” stolen by these means.
Expanding the idea of home further than one house, Calista Lyon’s “Localized Gestures” represents one iteration of Frontier Fellowships, an artist residency program offered by Epicenter, in Green River, Utah. Along with “Raven’s Eye View of Canal Commons” and “Green River Avenue Reimagined,” these unabashedly positive projects offer a thoughtful alternative to the greed and counteracting anger and despair that inevitably color so much of what’s on so many of the artists’ minds. Another corrective is offered by Erin Foster, whose series “Women’s Bedrooms” celebrates the private spaces women build for themselves not as prisons, but as sanctuaries and signs of resiliency. Anyone who has ever winced when a friend apologized for the messy state of her home may rejoice at the unabashed cosiness of these splendidly unkempt domains.
An alternative artistic approach to celebrating the lives homes make possible is taken by Courtney Kissel in “Without Chloé.” Kessel began this project as part of an overall practice engaged with the only-too-familiar problem of how to balance parenting with life as an artist. What makes her approach particularly compelling is how she stresses the negative pressure from the art world, rather than from her daughter. ”Placing the private and domestic in the gallery performs a maternal visibility that has not often been seen, let alone been permitted,” she says. “There is this weird unwritten thing of invisibility of motherhood, like it’s supposed to just happen and not be talked about, especially not in the gallery.” To make her point visibly and starkly, she went through her home, photographing all the evidence of the lives lived there, then scissored from the prints any evidence of Chloé’s presence. The extent of what she was required to cut out of her photo spread makes one measure of how significant a part her daughter plays in their family. Given the sense some parents project that it is their house and their children only live there, “Without Chloé” makes an indelible impression.
Out in the former Wendover military base, meanwhile, an alternative approach to homebuilding has produced Simparch’s “Clean Livin’” one of several such projects of the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s “residency” program. Built from an abandoned quonset hut, the innovative structure features “electricity supplied to the side by a 2,000 watt solar system and water … imported from two miles away via pedal-powered vehicle that’s held in an elevated tank, pressurized by gravity, and solar heated. Human and food waste are composted for future agricultural use as wastewater is collected and processed for reuse by a greywater system.” If that sounds more like engineering than art, the images provided tell a much more aesthetic story of what the resident artists have achieved.
Finally, two artists make work that foregrounds an area where homelessness isn’t just an economic, social, or political problem, but a matter of life and death. Omar Imam partners with Syrian refugees in Lebanon: persons whose homes were often not just lost to them, but destroyed in warfare. Americans often seem to assume that refugees come here as a matter of preference, and that their professed motivation is cover for a desire to live American-style. In Imam’s photographs, he shows how refugees have more in common with each other than they will ever feel with their hosts, whether those are Lebanese or Americans. Hrair Sarkissian, in what may be the most cerebrally painful work in the show, has created a two-channel video about what it means to be truly “Homesick.” On the left, an exact, intricate model of his parent’s apartment building is seen, while on the right, Sarkissian wields a sledge hammer against a target just off-screen. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether the blows are falling, unseen, on the model, which in fact begins to pucker, crumble, and finally disintegrate. In time, the destruction of the building, which in fact we are told his parents still live in, and the repeated, stunning blows of the artist reverse the energy flowing between the two screens: the represented loss of the apartment seems to strike Sirkissian over and over, until he is reduced to a weary and shaken man.
Together with the dozen mini-exhibitions that precede it, “Homesick” reveals the reality behind a word used so often and so casually, in so many circumstances and variations that differ from person to person, that instead of billions of meanings, it’s in danger of having none. One version that surprisingly wasn’t invoked literally here is what’s still called “The American Dream.” There was a time when the biggest purchase most of us made was a home. Now it’s more likely to be an automobile. Of course for some, the car is their home. When a critical mass of art has amassed around that strange fact, it’s more than likely that UMOCA will host the exhibition.
Haimaz, Heim Hjem, Häm, Home, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through July 15