HOUSE, at Mead Art Museum, Amherst College
In Radcliffe Bailey’s mixed media piece, “Seven Steps East,” old photographs, faded flowers, patches of wallpaper and fragments of lettering coalesce inside the cross section of a house to suggest the layered history of multiple generations. Around the perimeter, flat sticks of what might be clapboards or slats of a picket fence form a protective thicket. Like other artwork in HOUSE, at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, Bailey’s work melds interior and exterior, individual and universal, to explore how the iconic image of a house structures human experience.
All 60 pieces on display come from the collection of Sue and and John Wieland (Amherst College alumnus, 1958). When the couple began collecting art in the mid-1980s, they focused on contemporary work featuring the image of a house —reflecting John’s homebuilding business and interests. While early acquisitions highlighted artists working in the United States, the Wielands later included international artists.
Looking around the exhibit, it’s exciting to spot highly acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Olafur Eliasson, and Ai Weiwei all “doing their thing” with house imagery. The indefatigable cataloguers of architectural typologies, Bernd and Hilla Becher, explore “Framework House (Fachwerkhauser).” And Richard Artschwager’s sculpture of a house-shaped crate twists inside out to infuse philosophical concerns with humor. Along with painting, sculpture, photography, video and installation, there’s a jigsaw puzzle in a plastic bag by Félix González-Torres.
Many works connect the house to a narrative. This can be a kind of documentation, as seen with three photographs by Greg Stimac of men and their lawn-mowing machines. The men seem to be stalwart warriors, defining and defending domestic turf: They hail respectively from Oak Lawn, Illinois; Mentor, Ohio; and Chandler, Arizona.
Other storytelling sequences involve elaborate staging. Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still #20” is one of 70 black-and-white photographs in which the artist invented scenes resembling still shots from movies and posed herself as the central female character — generating dialogue about stereotypical roles and representations of women. Another cinematic work, mired in enigma, is Gregory Crewdson’s 12-print series, “Dream House,” in which the artist deployed a full cast of actors, plus hair, makeup and lighting professionals, to conjure what some call “single-frame movies.”
There’s also work unabashedly rooted in aesthetics. The deliberate blurring in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s silver gelatin print, “Rietveld-Shroeder House,” reveals sculptural qualities of the house and holds the whole together by perfectly framing the formal elements. [Look for Vik Muniz’s C-print providing another view of the Schroeder House, rendered in the unusual medium of chocolate syrup.]
The most ominous image may be the large C-print of little houses with tiny back yard garden plots dwarfed (and doomed) by the hulking smokestacks of “Amos Coal Power Plant in Raymond City, West Virginia” by Mitch Epstein. And the most poignant is a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat’s reputation is currently flying high, and one of his paintings sold for $110.5 million last May. However, this crayon drawing is more modest in material and scale. It looks as if someone stomped on the paper with muddy boots or drove a truck over it — which enhances its expressive understatement. Entitled “Untitled (Any Home USA),” the house-shaped scrawl eloquently speaks Basquiat’s visual language, in its graffiti-like qualities and material vulnerability.
HOUSE: Selections from the Collection of John and Sue Wieland, at the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst, through July 1.
HOME, at Augusta Savage Gallery, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Another current exhibit shifts from the external structures of “HOUSE” to the inner experience of “HOME.” Augusta Savage Gallery invited artists around the world to consider what “home” means to them and create an artwork plus a brief story to accompany the image. As gallery director Terry Jenoure explains, personal urgency underlies the idea of HOME. “All my life, I’ve struggled with clarifying, if only to myself, what is a home? Where is it?”
Jenoure expected that some interpretations would be literal, but hoped others would stretch to address current turmoil created by the Trump administration’s policies, practices and even presidential tweets.
“We’re struggling with notions of nationhood, with identities that straddle places, and ideologies that keep shifting,” Jenoure says. “We’re trying to grapple with the redefining of laws we may have taken for granted, and with morale and behaviors that makes us feel ‘at home’ or threatened.”
While all the artworks are a uniform 16-by-16 inches, they represent a range in intent as well as in global origin. Some come from professional artists. Others come from people who created their work not as formal art, but in heartfelt response to the power of home. Their stories embrace a similar diversity. Some are eloquent while others struggle to find their voice. Jenoure feels it is essential to include them all, to emphasize the Augusta Savage Gallery as a home for creative people who may not have an opportunity to be seen or heard by a larger audience — as well as a venue for professional artists who also exhibit their work elsewhere.
“This egalitarianism is important,” Jenoure insists. “I grew up at a time and in a community that had a ‘community center.’ And that community center was a place where people went in order to feel safe and protected. I believe that this gallery should be that sort of place — a place where we encourage growth and solidarity.”
HOME, at the Augusta Savage Gallery, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Part 1 through March 8; Part 2 from March 26-April 30, with Opening Reception on March 26, 5-7 p.m.