A house is more than a home in new exhibit at Amherst College's Mead Art Museum
The photo is one of the hundreds of contemporary art works collected by John Wieland and his wife Sue through the years, a selection of which is now on display at Amherst College's Mead Art Museum. It is an irony that Wieland, an Amherst alumnus, made his fortune by building just these kinds of housing developments across the American Southeast.
"John isn't afraid in his collecting to include works that critique his own work," said David E. Little, the director of the Mead and curator of the exhibit, called "House: Selections from the Collection of John and Sue Wieland," which is running through July 1. He noted that Wieland appreciates the works on an aesthetic level, but also the practical, noting how a development like Verona Walk maximized waterfront space, and includes space for individual options at a reasonable price point.
There are many ways to look at this kind of work because the idea of a "house" is broad enough and familiar enough that it opens up all kinds of opportunities to consider aesthetic options. The quality of the works included in the Mead show, including many major names in contemporary art, shows its depth.
At first glance around the four rooms of the exhibit, which takes over much of the Mead's gallery space, you notice patterns, like even grids and repeated images. It suggests the rhythms of daily life, as in the photo series by Martin Hyers and William Mebane called "Levittown, NY" (2009), of multiple homes in the postwar housing development that has become a metonym for a kind of anonymous suburban sprawl.
Each individual image is in the snapshot aesthetic of an Instagram page with a harsh flash and shot in a snowstorm to heighten the layers. It forces you to think about the variations: the difference in the yards, in the garages, the height of the second floor, all built from the same simple foundation.
It recurs again in a series of photos by Olafur Eliasson of a series of hunting huts in Iceland, shown just as the spring thaw is taking hold. The harsh beauty of the landscape collides with the charm and humanity of the modest structures. It celebrates what Little calls "the creativity of simple design," engaged with Eliasson's recurring theme of how humans exist in the natural world.
And it is not just exteriors: Gregory Crewdson's "Dream House, 2002" is a series of elaborately staged, cinematic images of domestic life that are as mysterious in meaning as they are intricate in composition.
Little said the variety of works made this a rewarding show to put together.
"The works have a simplicity about them, the topic is very clear, but then once you start to think about them there's a deep complexity to them," he said. "It's a very approachable way to address audiences and students and allow them to connect to it — we all have a house or home — and then start to appreciate some of the artistic and aesthetic choices and ideas embedded in the work."
For many of the works, that means looking closely, especially at a number of objects that purposely play with ideas of perspective and form. There's a small simple model house by Cuban emigre Maria Elena Gonz lez composed of a small bright red house within an opaque, milky outer form, whose dimensions and clarity changes depending how you look at it. A 3-D aluminum sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein of a cartoon suburban house seems to bend up and off the wall as you approach it. Another work by Eliasson is an enormous kaleidoscope, an homage to the colorful interior design work of Mexican architect Luis Barrag n. A large marble slab in the middle of the floor, in the shape of an antique door, is Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei's subtle protest against the razing of huge swaths of historic Beijing.
Politics, too, are bent into new shapes. A separate room is for Martha Rosler's series "House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home" from the late 1960s and early 1970s. She used photomontage to graft together images of the war in Southeast Asia with ones from contemporary interior design magazines.
And inevitably, many engage with how race shapes our sense of place. A pair of images from South African photographer David Goldblatt highlight how space and race interact. One shows a billboard for a new subdivision, showing a cheerful white family with a black fruit-seller beneath it. Another shows a shantytown seamlessly slotted between a meadow and the tree line. "He was very interested in the way that architecture, fences, borders, hedges, were part of apartheid," Little said. Closer to home, an image by Joel Sternfeld shows three African-American women waiting in the middle of the street of a very plain, upscale housing development. The panel notes they are domestic workers waiting for a bus, and the strange alienation of their environment is plain to see.
But others build on the universality of home. There is a mixed media collage by Radcliffe Bailey, "Seven Steps East" (1983) features found images of the artist's own past, along with fence pickets and knick-knacks. Nearby, on a much smaller scale, is a little work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled (Any Home, USA)" (1982) features a small image a small child might create of a house, with only a window and no door, above a copyright marks, with a few footprints stamped on it.
A house is an omnipresent idea, one that is flexible and movable, an idea perhaps best show in an ambitious piece by Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck. "A House by the Sea" (2010) is an enormous fortress-like house perched on some rock, which you can move around and peer into the windows and doors. There are a few lights inside, lots of shadows and lines on the furniture and floors, with a suggestion of hasty abandonment. Stepping back, you realize the entire gallery room is part of the piece — the house, the specific shade of grey it is painted that exactly matches the walls, the carpet, the large watercolor of a seascape on the wall.
Little said the work could be about memory, or about the housing crisis that had just rocked the real estate market and rippled through people lives. Or it could be something more cinematic, that the house is the "establishing shot" and that you've just stepped into the story as if it were a film. "This room could be a room within this home," he said.
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