Homelessness and labor struggles inconsistently paired in well-meaning collaboration
For all of its good intentions and solid execution, Chris Stain and Leon Reid IV's installation Ain't Goin' Home treads on dangerous turf. Walking into the Creative Alliance at the Patterson's main gallery, you're first confronted with a pair of ramshackle constructions meant to be representations of past and present Hooverville homes (the buildings don't have a time signifier of any sort), a set of painted rails, and a looming sculpture of John Henry, the mythical hero of a technology-marginalized working class. One of the shacks is particularly slapdash, shooting off in weird dimensions and not looking like it was built from the perspective of someone could live in this. It feels more symbolic, more an abstracted representation than an observed-from-reality model.
If Stain and Reid had instead done the latter and gone out and seen some of the very real communities of Hoovervilles existing around any and every American city in this Great Recession--or, for that matter, any time before it--and carefully modeled the installation after such, Home's position may have been considerably less vague. At least, it would have felt like exploitation. As it is, Home is less clear--it makes the whole distinction between art-object, documentary, and exploitation uncomfortably muddy.
Granted, there is no politically neutral way a project like this could turn out. As is, Home creates a distance between both the present and past, between reality and myth. And that's the danger: Home's installations suggest a precarious separation from what once happened and what's happening now. You could find a real existing latter-day Hooverville at this moment within a mile of downtown Baltimore--heading south from downtown Baltimore, an observant light-rail rider should have little trouble. Here, they've been displaced and abstracted.
The shacks, after all, are sharing floor space with John Henry. Henry is known as a myth, a superman that could beat out the machines that were stealing the livelihoods of the working class. While likely real in some form, he's a historical abstraction, a collection of folk stories. Homelessness is not. It's not a myth, and attempting to put it within that context feels misguided. It's all part of the greater narrative of struggle and perseverance, yes, but it's one continuing right now in brutal form.
Exhibition co-curator Stain explained during a pre-opening viewing that he'd actually stopped doing pieces like this. "I actually stopped building these--because I did see people living in them," he said. "And I felt really bad. This is somebody's house. It's not like a piece of art. In the context of the show, I felt OK. In general, I wouldn't do it anymore. My intention isn't to make light of anything. My intention is to document what's in the past and what's going on right now." He cited the Creative Alliance's request for this particular installation as the reason for returning to the Hooverville creations, and he did talk briefly about the real-life Hoovervilles and made the point that now, during the Great Recession, is actually an ideal time to bring the pieces back, reminding people that, yes, Great Depression-era struggle is back and these places do exist in America.
In any case, the argument about exploitation in art and creating awareness through art is old and ultimately circular. Moreover, the three-dimensional aspect of the installation shouldn't overshadow the impressive 2-D portion covering three gallery walls, making up both the physical and conceptual bulk of the installation. It's a powerfully immersive narrative of early-industrial era struggle in street stencil art, chalk, and paint.
A weathered old man sits against the uniform, gray shape of an industrial tower. A shielded white welder sparks his torch and an African-American man saddles up a horse against another gray-stencil background, this time a string of telephone wires and the pre-industrial era's heaviest death knell, an automobile. A dreadlocked woman walks what could be a Baltimore street with a child on her back, telephone lines hanging above again in an almost threatening lattice. Another man looks thoughtfully beside his horse, a dilapidated town in the distance. The story on the walls covers a broad smear of people existing within a particular time in history. Unlike its 3-D complement, it evades myth for history, and resonates far more deeply for it.
The necessary contrast and crudeness of Ain't Goin' Home's stencil-work is effective, because it feels a bit dirty, a bit unfinished. And Stain is massively talented at this sort of art, drawing heavy expressiveness from his characters with a crude medium. In this day and age of street art in museums and the marketplace, it's easy to regard stencil-work as overblown, but Ain't Goin' Home gets it just right.
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