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Art

The War at Home

Group show unsettles rosy assumptions about comforting domesticity

Jackson Martin's "Just in Case (Family of Three)"

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 12/10/2008

Habitat

Through Dec. 7 at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery

IF THE RECENT HOUSING CRISIS HAS anything to teach us, it’s that even the most permanent structures are simply accumulations of capital, prime for sub-dividing and recombining into ever-more complex financial packages. All our material and romantic attachment to our homes is for naught when the teaser-rate expires and the Russian oil oligarchs, who own our mortgages, are looking for their return. The exhibit Habitat isn’t quite as cold as an overleveraged investment banker trying to hold on to his own vacation property, but the nine artists in the show take a critical, at times caustic view of the home.

This ambivalent view of the home shows up in even the warmest pieces, like James Rieck’s photorealist paintings of the plushy home accoutrements that promise intimacy laying down. The tall, oversized canvasses are covered with wrinkles and folds, depicting comforters, sleeping bags, and shaped mattress pads. The detail of Rieck’s paintings leave nothing for the imagination, like those Ikea store bedrooms that have your clock radio picked out for you, as if to suggest that even the most soothing linens have a household agenda.

The surety of Rieck’s work is countered by Eddie Winter’s photographs, part of what he calls the “Living Box” series. Shooting in the usual dilapidated houses that are part of most urban landscapes, Winter twists the expected notes of despair and longing by depicting the growth possible when a manmade structure is left in care of the natural world. Tree branches grow into an open window, paint peels as if to form a mosaic, the water in a poorly maintained fish tank clouds up. The inhabitants of these houses are living, yes, but as plants and algae they do not share the same needs nor squander the same resources as humans and animals.

Robert Sparrow Jones' rural paintings of decidedly non-rural subjects share the same brush strokes as pictures that pile up at antique shops, but the little details—like a man wearing a pink tutu—make it campy and self-aware. Likewise, Rachel Bone’s skillfully drawn playful and ornately coifed figures, often set against white backgrounds, engage themselves in glances and games that are accessible without being welcoming. These works acknowledge the fundamental privacy of home spaces, reminding us that even the most banal objects have histories.

The four sculptural pieces in the show are the least comforting of the lot, perhaps due to their incongruity with domesticated spaces of the other pieces. The most chilling of the quartet is Sebastian Martorana’s “Homeland Security Blanket,” a ground-level marble sculpture of a blanket wrapped around what is supposed to be a small child. The wrinkles and creases formed by the blanket are offset by the cold, white marble, making the piece more war memorial than garden decoration. The placement of the piece on the floor, rather than at eye level, allows for its impact to be felt gradually, as only the title signifies that it is more than an abstract image.

Two table-level pieces develop this sub-theme of insecurity, if less successfully than Martorana’s piece. In Christopher La Voie’s “Grey Vibrations,” the vibrations caused by sound waves are used to rattle a table full of dishes, including a precariously placed wine glass that appears to be just a bass tone away from tumbling. Although the piece succeeds on its own terms by destabilizing the dining room table, its ambitions are unclear. Although less subtle than La Voie’s work, Jackson Martin’s “Just in Case (Family of Three)” uses a his and hers and theirs collection of gas masks, placed under glass in a box, in order to highlight the fear that lingers in our daily lives.

This trio of terror, set near one another like stations of the cross in the Age of Bush, are relieved by the work of the sculptor Angelo Arnold, whose “Familiarture” pieces discover the inherent silliness of furniture by turning them into human-like objects. For his “Loved Seat,” he moves the two front legs forward of a forest green love seat to make it appear to be bowing, resting on itself. Items that would otherwise crowd up Salvation Army warehouses are turned into self-comforting sculptures.

Alyssa Dennis’s architectural drawings are more about urban space than domestic space. The mixture of sketches of objects moving through these spaces and the precisely drawn buildings that define said spaces suggests that the interplay between the soft ideas and hard realities of daily life. Homes are made of sticks and stones, but they’re always falling down.

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