Exhibition Review: Provo
Home Is Where the House Is
The Wieland Collection comes to BYU
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.
||Exhibition Review: Logan
Finding Fertile Ground in the Desert
The Harrison Museum stakes a claim for the transcendent role of Western art
On a partition amid the downstairs gallery of the Harrison Museum in Logan hang three hand-woven Hopi plaques, or flat dishes. The backwards-F motif of the central disc repeats six times, as if rotating rapidly around its center. To the left, a woven black-and-white pattern suggests a hoop, also spinning at high speed, but this flat circle refuses to stay flat for the eye, instead appearing to rise along a curved fold. The plaque on the right delivers on this promise of three- dimensional form, with a raised bridge crossing over a central field that uses ornamental geometry to nearly square the circle. These three endemic Hopi vessels, each full of symbolic meaning, are surrounded by close to 60 paintings, prints, photos, sculptures, and ceramics intent on showing that the American West, and in particular the Southwest, far from failing to rise to the challenge of European history transposed through New York to the world, has chosen to follow its own path in pursuing a vital art all its own.
Robert Irwin’s “Untitled,” mounted high on another wall a short distance from the Hopi baskets, also begins with a circle that, like the baskets, casts a shadow behind it. But where their shadows are incidental, the shadows Irwin produced mark the division between painting as it used to be and his watershed invention, which has been called “non-material painting.” At the time he created these works, non-material referred to art made without conventional art materials, like canvas, oil and acrylic paints, stretcher bars, and frames. But it also staked a claim that substances not generally thought of as materials, like light, shade, and space, were the essential components with which he painted. As the 1960s drew to a close, Irwin and his fellow artists at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles sought alternatives not only to the standard representational genres—landscape, figure, portrait—but to the abstract genres that had seemed such a break from them, an attempt at pure paint without external references. When public acceptance made clear that they only represented a different subject matter, one in which the viewer’s emotional response pointed to the content, the Ferus Group determined to try again. Irwin’s breakthrough came when he began to mount works like “Untitled,” a translucent disc of Plexiglas about 4 feet in diameter, away from the wall, then illuminated them with multiple lights casting shadows that, together with the original disc, form a complex pattern in space.
Robert Irwin’s floating paintings and the shadows they generated didn’t just contribute to the liberation of paint from the illusionary window; they permanently changed the relationship between artists and museums, which had previously been seen essentially as repositories of objects. When he began making them and museums first agreed to show them, Irwin had to travel to the museum in person to install his paintings. Nowadays, of course, artists are comfortable sending instruction, diagrams, even paint chips, while museums employ teams of experts who translate these directions, thereby realizing works in the gallery the artist may never even see. These two sets of circles, then, the woven plaques and the nest of shadows, mark two boundaries: one where art emerges from craft, another where it begins to separate from material objects and the physical presence of the artist.
Transcendence: Abstraction and Symbolism in the American West does call on one traditional attribute of the museum. The Harrison Museum’s vaults are a veritable treasure house that supplies its galleries with shows like this. Suitable works also are stored in drawers accessible by the public. When displayed, many are accompanied by small folders that recount the artist’s motives and offer insights into the works without cluttering their environments with too much distracting signage. Thus a viewer captivated by Henrietta Shore’s “Two Worlds,” and by its unmistakable kinship with the groundbreaking early watercolors of her contemporary, Georgia O’Keeffe, can take advantage of the museum’s continuing relationship with a work it owns, and take home a mnemonic to help remember it. Robert McChesney’s “Mexico B14” is another work presented in this way. Like Henrietta Shore, McChesney thought visible experiences with an artwork could convey perceptions formed by other senses, and his experiments, such as using thin washes that could be absorbed by unprimed canvas, then drawn on to contrast a solid line with soft color forms, are still being assimilated by other artists.
Given its regional theme, it’s logical (and tempting) to search a show like Transcendence for anything resembling popular influences, which are not hard to find. Don Martin’s incendiary lacquer painting “Flying Spirit South–Fire on the Mountain” evokes at least three possible such connections: the penetrating influence on the West of Japanese culture, where the labor-intensive production of optically opulent lacquer ware is ubiquitous; hot rod culture, where lacquer sets the standard for exotic painted finishes; and psychedelic, or consciousness-expanding, practices relating such diverse sources as Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, organic nature, meditation, and recreational drug use.
Laboriously burnished surfaces also are featured in the pottery of Maria Montoya Martinez, whose metallic-looking blackware has found a worldwide audience and come to exemplify Pueblo pottery. The eloquent shapes of Maria’s pots are echoed in Timothy Moore’s stoneware “Bowl,” with its evocation of geological sediments, and Mark Kuzio’s untitled bowl, with its overlay of map-like markings and technological references. Not surprisingly, such traditional and native influences aren’t just subliminal, but rise to become deliberate. A photograph by the late Utah artist Gaell Lindstrom, “In Taos,” that presents the venerable adobe church as an array of cubical and stair-step forms, constitutes just one treatment of a subject every visiting and resident artist felt challenged to make something of. Likewise, Judy Natal’s “Totems” places a humanoid figure made of sign-makers letters—a ‘C’ for a head, two ‘A’s for a torso, and ‘E’ and an ‘I’ for arms—into a grove of cactus plants, an “intervention” she intends to call attention to many far more substantial and devastating ways humans intervene in nature.
The curators’ statement credits the West as “a symbol for endless possibility, for lawlessness, and for challenging European artistic tradition.” Their accomplishment in this exhibition is to find so many works of art in which all three directions intersect. With so many examples, neither the writer nor the visitor can fully appreciate them all. Adeline Kent’s “Gambler” derives its name from the blade-like crescents that terminate its two arms. Yet it also gambles aesthetically, its black-and-brown bands that recall the serene stone churches of Italy and angular shape making a play for attention. Even its material, oxychloride cement, constitutes a one-of-a-kind risk that, in this case, pays off. So does a trip to Logan, where both shows currently on offer (including the excellent “Abstraction and the Dreaming: Aboriginal Paintings from Australia’s Western Desert,” reviewed in October’s 15 Bytes) foreground the vital role in art, and the rewards, of abstraction and symbolism. It remains only to add that the city and the natural setting of the Harrison Museum make their own Western contribution to the context of art exhibitions worthy of repeat visits and serious contemplation.