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Space Cases

Secret Panel: Ken Fukushima's Calendar Room (shown in detail) holds sumptuous surprises.

By Blake de Pastino | Posted 9/3/2003

Habitats and Dwelling: Memory and Material

Maryland Art Place through Sept. 20

There are good reasons why when we dream at night we dream of our childhood homes. Even when we're dreaming of ourselves as we are today--all grown up with our grown-up problems--most of us still occasionally find ourselves in the house where we were raised. This is what makes the dreams so dreamlike: The setting is familiar enough as to feel almost intuitive, but the players don't belong in it. Hence all those Felliniesque scenes that take place in the old bedroom, filled curiously with our co-workers, or our lovers, or all of them at once, crowding around the twin bed where we once slept as children. And in that bed, too, we dreamed of home.

This all happens because our memories are actually, and much more deeply than we realize, based in a sense of space. Architecture imprints itself on us, and we carry the memories of those volumes in us forever, even if they only show up in our sleep. Our recognition of the power of space is so dim, though, that even most artists fail to understand it. Architects do, at least the good ones, and sculptors, too, as well as installation artists, whose work requires a certain appreciation of distance, positioning, triangulation. But of the artists who take part in Habitats and Dwelling: Memory and Material, the new show on display at Maryland Art Place, the ones who succeed in reaching the furthest are also those with their feet still in dreamland--the ones who understand that spaces aren't lockboxes for memories, but the other way around. As the unevenness of the show attests, it's a hell of a reach to have to make.

Villa Julie College art instructor Lori Rubeling curated this show around what she calls "the material/memory dialectic," a topic that, if ephemeral, is at least familiar to the crew she has assembled to explore it. Four of the nine artists in the exhibit are, like Rubeling herself, alumni of suburban Detroit's Cranbrook Academy of Art, a design atelier known for producing artists who are well schooled in the physics, as well as the psychics, of space.

One of these alums is Baltimore photographer Brian Kain, whose pairs of large-scale black-and-whites seem to frame the basic dialogue between memories and the rooms where they're made. His pictures are metaphysical before-and-after shots, still lifes in which the scene--and the mood--have undergone some benign change. Sometimes too benign: In his (stove) Displacement, the setting is a kitchen stove, where a teapot in one photo has been replaced by a coffeepot in the next. In another pairing, a cantaloupe sits on a windowsill, then disappears. In a third, an old wood chair sits before an open front door; the change between the two shots is so slight that it takes a minute to register that the shadows are falling in slightly different directions, as if taken in different times of day. The loneliness of Kain's photos creates a ready environment for mulling over recollection and loss. It's just a shame that, among all of the grandiose gestures in the show, these studies of niggling detail themselves seem a little lost.

In his defense, it's hard to compete with the cry for help coming from the gallery's opposite end. That would be S. Denise Tassin's installation Studio object collection, a re-creation of Tassin's East Baltimore studio, where her lifelong collection of tchotchkes stands as a lesson in the unremitting hunger with which memories can devour space. A corner of the gallery has been configured to re-create the clutter of the artist's workspace, crammed with the detritus of her 30-plus years, each relic, we're to believe, having some important but unstated worth. In addition to all the little snippets on view--doodles on guitar picks, Necco wafers, and hardware-store paint chips, displays of birds' wings, feet, and bones--there's the centerpiece of the installation, a towering bookcase whose shelves groan with hundreds of gewgaws that the artist has happened upon, or has been given, and cannot seem to part with. It looks like a collection of kitsch: Pez dispensers, Japanese toys, tiny rubber insects, Playskool figurines, canned foods from foreign countries. On the floor before it sit 12 clear bags full of more of the same: used shoe insoles, bottle caps, moistened towelettes from Kentucky Fried Chicken, still in their little pouches.

Tassin's artist statement argues that the meaning of these trinkets is not merely in their sentimental weight but in the process behind them of acquiring, maintaining, and salting away. "What I'm doing," she writes, "is building an environment." In that respect, the installation is indeed a menacing display, but mainly of the artist's deep self-regard. The very arrangement of the items on the shelves, it turns out, is supposed to meticulously duplicate the way in which they appear in Tassin's studio, and the artist's faithfulness in this detail has apparently not been casual: A Maryland Art Place employee explained that a single frilled toothpick had accidentally been dislodged from its proper shelf, and was waiting to be righted by the artist on her next visit.

If Tassin is busy staking out the danger zone of inner space, Canadian architect Ken Fukushima is working in the broadest possible strokes. In a series of four eight-foot panels collectively called Calendar Room, Fukushima invokes a meditation on the physical world that is breathtaking in its ambition and staggering in its beauty. It owes its inspiration to four 16th-century Japanese landscape paintings, copies of which hang quietly nearby as a reference. Fukushima borrows only the silhouette of each landscape--a heaving mountain in one, a precipitous cliff in another--rendering them in metallic gold pastel and thick black gouache as a background. And over each he has laid dense webs of white, in lines that are by turns curvilinear and die-straight, splaying out to connect plots of gray space, as if they were cities connected by roads as seen from an aerial view. But some close inspection reveals that the curved lines quietly inscribe the sumptuous forms of female nudes on top of these businesslike grids. In one panel breasts float in quarter profile, just below it an arm and a wrist disappearing into the gridwork. In another panel there's a curvaceous back, a plum ass, an ankle, a knee. And in another still, it doesn't take long to realize that the patches of gray that at first looked like city limits are indeed filled with the fleshy calligraphy of tiny vaginas, and that those streetlike lines that run through them, in fact, radiate from each little clitoris, surging in from the edge of the frame. All roads, Fukushima seems to suggest, lead to heaven.

As our weird dreams keep teaching us, though, the effects of memory are always felt on an ultimately human scale, and famed photographer William Christenberry is there to remind us of that. There's only one of his works in Habitats and Dwelling, but it's enough to serve as the show's most poignant moment, a solemn and melancholy reverie that many pieces around it seem to aspire to. His "Green Warehouse" series is a bloc of 16 photos that were decades in the making, with the artist revisiting the same site continuously from 1973 to '96--a ramshackle shed of green corrugated steel, crouching in a grassy field by a road in Christenberry's native Alabama. His small color prints approach the big old shed almost identically every time, and this simple monotony forces us to make comparisons. In some photos the sky is white as cotton, in others cobalt blue. At times the grass was emerald green the day he showed up, and at others it was dry as hay. And as the years pass you can notice--almost imperceptibly--the doorways gently buckling, the lucky-green paint fading, the sheets of steel curling up like steamed sheaves of paper. And through it all the building remains, solid but still mysterious, big and roomy and probably dark inside, the kind of place kids love to rumble around in on sultry summer days. You see these memories of this place hanging in front of you, and it's hard not to imagine that someone somewhere is dreaming about it.

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