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Two Artists Roam Through A Homeland Mansion And Let It Invade Their Brains

IT'S ALL AT THE MALL: Any Chan's "The Peaceable Kingdom."

By J. Bowers | Posted 12/20/2006

House Guests: Amy Chan and Richard Torchia

At the Evergreen House through Jan. 14

For six years now, Evergreen House has opened its stately 19th-century doors to some House Guests, artists-in-residence who find inspiration for new works by mining the historic mansion's elegantly furnished interior and sprawling pastoral grounds. Think of it as the indoor equivalent of the house's biannual Sculpture at Evergreen series.

While many other, larger venues also allow contemporary work to infiltrate and dialogue with galleries full of historic pieces--London's Victoria and Albert, New York's Met, and our own Walters, to name but a few--Evergreen stands out because of its intimacy. While wandering through the dark, sumptuously carpeted corridors and ascending the wide wooden staircases, you feel as though the Garretts--the deeply eccentric B&O railroad tycoons who lived here--are still somewhere in the mansion's 40-plus rooms. So, as you'd expect, it's particularly interesting when the houseguests start taking advantage of their hosts' personal space.

Painter Amy Chan's Views of the Mid-Atlantic and installation artist Richard Torchia's House Lights and Furniture Music: Treatments for a Suite of Darkened Rooms represent two wildly different reactions to Evergreen House's unique atmosphere--so different that they must be considered as separate shows.

Chan's edgy works appear only tangentially inspired by Evergreen and are wisely displayed in the mansion's modern gallery space. A skilled painter of wildlife, she apparently spent time studying the Garretts' large collection of botanical prints and Audubon editions--but you get the feeling that she didn't need the assist. Chan's sort of an odd fit for Evergreen's cocoonlike 19th-century atmosphere, since she's primarily interested in a 21st-century concern, namely the troubling intersection between American consumerism and the environment.

Standout work "The Peaceable Kingdom" juxtaposes drawings of weary-looking trees and displaced wildlife with the boxy gray mall architecture of Ross Dress for Less, Payless ShoeSource, and other strip-mall chains. A woolly mammoth sinks into a morass of tar in front of a Toys "R" Us. A coyote howls in front of a McDonald's sign. Chan's deserted buildings float through her white backgrounds like wallpaper patterns, each scene united by a central waterfall of putrid-looking gray fluid.

"San Joaquin" has a similarly dark, tragicomic effect. Here, Chan sinks a cracked and algae-worn version of the Hollywood Bowl into a puke-green swamp, decorating the horizon line with playful curlicues and a pink neon sign. A cartoonish happy-looking blue whale--a hilarious contrast to the faithfully rendered manatees and dolphins in her other works--splashes incongruously in the muck.

Overall, Chan's offerings feel independent from the Evergreen aesthetic, but intriguing enough to stand alone in the gallery space. By contrast, Torchia's installations take the term "site specific" to a new level. His works don't just range throughout the mansion, subverting architectural spaces--they also draw primary inspiration from the Garretts' life and times, creating an immersive experience as you walk through the house.

For instance, interested in the fact that the mansion's Chinese porcelain gallery used to be a billiard room, Torchia created "Cue," an almost ghostly installation that uses an antique Victrola to play a recording of museum staff playing the Garretts' original pool table. Across the hall, in the opulent red Far East Room, "Embers From an Opium Bed" reanimates the fireplace with ever-morphing projected images of the mansion's netsuke collection--intricate Japanese carvings of demons, apes, dragons, and other horrible creatures. It's as though a strange, hallucinatory fire is flickering in a corner of the room.

Though barely visible during daylight hours, "Birds of America (released), Part 1" is a great concept. Torchia used a computer to scan and animate Audubon prints of birds that John Garrett, an avid bird-watcher, saw on the grounds around his home. When played on a laptop screen that's reflected in Evergreen's Reception Room window, the animation makes it appear as though drawings of birds are perching on the trees outside.

All elegant and inventive, but Torchia's "Views of Baltimore (after Covarrubias)" is downright awe-inspiring. Two shimmering, translucent screens hang in the tall alcoves of a small library, hiding light-blocked windows and telescope lenses that work together to create a haunting camera-obscura effect--projecting live images of the trees outside as ever-changing, upside-down silhouettes. The trees' inverted branches echo root structures, and the chandeliers hanging behind the screens add mysterious shadows to the images. The piece is beautiful--it would be beautiful anywhere--but at Evergreen, a mansion that feels made for mystery and intrigue, it feels like gazing back through time.

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