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Shelter and Habitat in Contemporary Art @ Bedford Gallery

Robert Minervini, One Percent Efficiency, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72"

 

Home is, for most of us, an intimate place to seek shelter and express personal style.  But it is also, as this impressive show of 29 artists from across the U.S. demonstrates, fertile ground for seeding environmental statements, for validating (or debunking) urban and suburban myths and for leveling criticism about design and consumption.  As such, home in this wide-ranging exhibition, is less a physical structure than it is an attitude or state of mind. 

Taking the macro view, Dean Monogenis’ paintings depict modernist buildings perched precariously on cliffs; industrial cranes support theses outcroppings, pointedly implying that the whole edifice of civilization might just as easily crumble as stand.  Tyler Bewley’s colorful gouache landscapes — studded with buildings, solar panel, grids and signs – speak of an ever-spreading civilization in a cheery Mission-meets-pop surrealist style, suggesting, in pictures like Oceanfront Property, that the climate-induced apocalypse that awaits us might not be all that bad. 
 
Gina Tuzzi, On the Beach (1974), 2009, 16 x 4 x 6"

Gina Tuzzi’s balsa wood sculptures, which form a fantastical caravan, look and feel like a flashback to the utopian ideals of a generation ago when her parents hit the road in a van.  She mounts elaborate, multi-story structures on the beds of tiny trucks, piling layers of architectural history into unwieldy towers that dwarf the vehicles.  Given the provisional nature of the economy, these sculptures could also be read, alternately, as signs of hard times — a topic covered several years back by the photographer Richard Gilles and by The New York Times in a recent piece about homeless people sleeping in their cars in Walmart parking lots. 

Photographers Todd Hido and Henry Wessel examine suburbia. Wessel’s black and white portraits of LA-area houses are enveloped in darkness and framed by lush encroaching foliage, and feature a central glowing window or porch light. Taken from the sidewalk, they show the artist keeping a safe distance as a quiet observer – a detached viewpoint that differs markedly from the engaged, humorous, irony-laced pictures for which he is well known.  Similarly, in Hido’s well-circulated surveillance-like photographs of houses and mobile homes, we see an intense yellow glow emanating through windows.  They make you feel like a voyeur, prying into the private lives of others, which, of course, you are.   
 
Tracey Snelling’s Last House on the Left, a tabletop diorama of a suburban street nestled in its own darkened corner of the gallery, announces itself well before it’s seen, with audible screams of murder.  Each of the four houses is modeled after a home from a classic horror film (The Birds, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Amnityville Horror) with videos of each playing in the windows.  Home, in American popular
 
Tracey Snelling, Last House on the Left, 2007, mixed media installation, 55 x 100 x 40"
 
mythology, may be white picket fences, neatly trimmed lawns, two-car garages and happily married heterosexual couples with 2.2 kids, but Snelling’s feels more like a camped-up Hollywood version of the one proffered by Truman Capote in In Cold Blood, where home really was a place of violence and terror.  
 
Throughout much of the show, humble materials prevail.  Hagar Vardimon-van Heummen uses colorful thread to embellish images of houses with complex geometric patterns, a technique inspired by childhood memories of embroidering with her mother. For Elizabeth Cayne home is a fashion statement: a wearable sculpture, Femme Maison (White), a slim, torso-sized, Southern mansion with brick chimney, constructed from cardboard, thread and tape.   
Todd Hido, 2122, 1997, c-print, 20 x 34"

The elements in Robert Minervini’s paintings of interiors form a contemporary pastiche of furnishings and objects from different eras: exotic birds and Greek marble busts sit next to modernist tabletop sculptures, 18th century French armchairs surround an enormous modern white sofa, while an Op-ish painting overlooks the scene.  These mash-ups recall, in style and substance, the interiors of Jim Richard, the New Orleans painter who’s made a career out of skewering the tastes of the rich.  Whether Minervini’s are parodies or paeans is hard to say. 

The last piece of the show, Carrie Schneider’s video, Burning House, shows a shack on a tiny island burning in different seasons, having been rebuilt, torched and filmed 12 times over two years by the artist.  It’s harrowing, particularly at night, when the structure becomes a glowing fireball, but the message – if there is one — is elusive.  
 
No matter.  That little consensus emerges about what home is or what it might actually be turns out to be this show’s strong suit.  
 
“Home: Shelter and Habitat in Contemporary Art” @ Bedford Gallery through November 17, 2013.
 
Cover image: Hannah Chalew, Rampart Construction, 2012, pen, ink thread and wood on paper, 14 x 28 x 13. 
 
The show also includes works by Julie Alvarado, Kathryn Dunlevie, Megan Gorham, Deborah Hamon, Claire Jackel, Eirik Johnson, Lori Larusso, Derek Lynch, Lee Materazzi, Lori Nix, Jeannie O’Connnor, Sasha Petrenko, Ari Salomon, Carrie Schneider, Tracey Snelling, Lisa Solomon, Daniel Speight, Michael Stevens, Katherine Westerhout and Stephen Whisler.  
 
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