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nobodies home: momenta art; brooklyn, new york

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Betty Beaumont, love canal, usa, C-prints

 

1. Williamsburg for Sale

About two years ago, an acquaintance led me on a special Williamsburg tour; we got inside a few construction sites. One was a large garage subdivided into five studio-apartment units. “But they have no windows,” I observed. My tour guide assured me that special, remote-control skylights would take care of the problem. After hearing what the rent would be, I doubted anybody would ever pay so much for a place in Williamsburg—much less one without windows.

Two years later, notices taped to the front of the health food store on Bedford Avenue are advertising astronomically high rents, and plenty of young people I’ve seen standing there are calling the posted numbers on cell phones. These are the new Williamsburgers—customers at the sushi bars and vintage furniture shops that have suddenly appeared. As for the working-class neighborhood that used to be an affordable enclave for artists, it’s on its way out. Ever since the New York Times, New York, and other publications started trumping up the area as “the SoHo of Brooklyn,” demand for housing in Williamsburg has increased, landlords have jacked up the rents, and many longtime residents have been forced out of their homes. “Nobodies Home,” a smartly curated group exhibition of 11 artists this past spring at Momenta Art, a not-for-profit gallery in Williamsburg, put this gentrification of the neighborhood into perspective. It was a didactic show, “concerned with living space and alienation,” and what it said was compelling.

Fixed to the gallery’s plate-glass front doors, an adhesive image of a chipper, smiling Betty Crocker-type housewife beckoned passersby to come inside. Right out of Father Knows Best, this archetype of suburban domesticity, designed by Heidi Schlatter, looked strange in the middle of a city block of warehouses and tenements. Through the absurdity of its incompatible frame, Schlatter’s piece challenged the presumption of “improvement” behind the “gentrification” of Williamsburg. Inside the gallery, Day Gleason and Dennis Thomas critiqued the earlier gentrification of the East Village in their NOT FOR SALE, a silk screen that replicated the look of a Monopoly game deed card for Second Avenue: “Rent $250. With 1 Wine Bar $500. With 2 Boutiques $675.. . .” As deadpan as a political poster, the piece suggested how society promotes business as a thrilling game, and also how it teaches life lessons about winners and losers to children early—ages seven and up.

On a nearby wall, stick-figure diagrams clarified the interconnectedness of neighborhood dwellers to each other and, ultimately, their vulnerability to transnational corporations in a way that even children could understand. What’s more, the fact that these economic diagrams, called LOCAL ECONOMY VS GLOBAL ECONOMY, by Michelle Bertomen, David Boyle, and Brooklyn Architects Collective, were basically graffiti—drawn right on the wall—made them a perfect pendant (at least in my mind) to the signs reading “YUPPIE SCUM DIE” and “YUPPIE GO HOME” that somebody has spray-painted on Williamsburg construction sites.

All this may seem polemical, but there was also real poetry in the show. Larry Krone’s untitled parquet flooring fragments, which were attached here and there to the gallery floor, seemed, at first glance, to be the forlorn vestiges of a residential past, indexical traces suggesting how yesterday’s home could well be today’s gallery, and tomorrow’s who-knows-what. Krone is on to something, namely, how change itself may be the only constant in the real estate market. Karl Marx said something very much like this when he wrote that in capitalism “all that is solid melts into air.”

2. Commodity Culture at Home
As the catalogue puts it, the exhibition took “its cue from the current celebration of ‘lifestyle culture’. . .where an endless parade of magazine and television spots seems to reduce the image of life to one of Martha Stewart’s hypnotic discourses on domesticity.” It’s a bleak message, ultimately suggesting that home is territory now utterly occupied by desire—people’s desire for a picture-perfect home of the sort which advertisements promise, albeit subtly, that their products can create. It all began in Paris in the middle of the nineteenth century with the first department stores, Ur-sites of commodified display like Galerie Lafayette, the subject of two large untitled Ektachrome photographs by Donna Nield. In blurry bird’s-eye views, Nield featured a dizzying maze of cosmetic booths, where shoppers seemed to drift, dazed and aimless, like zombies. I found it curious what else the view from above revealed—lots of electrical wires and unpainted surfaces, the untidy stuff of the real world which is usually hidden from consumers’ eyes. And from the high perspective I got an even more disconcerting impression of social control—that of surveillance.

Everyone recognizes by now that crime, or rather fears about crime, are prompting social, legal, and technological reactions that erode civil liberties. I’m not at all comforted by the surveillance cameras in Washington Square Park, though it’s easy to find people who are. Peter Scott, who curated the exhibition, interrogated this paranoia about crime in two untitled photos of carefully-constructed studio tableaus. Both had the antiseptic, unlived-in appearance of department-store displays. One showcased a tasteful contemporary-style bedroom, the other an elegant bathroom with a pedestal sink. But patient study served up subtle, nightmarish details. Hand-drawn, police-style mug shots literally haunted the bedroom—Scott had drawn these faces directly on the back side of the wallpaper, so that just a hint of the drawings bled through. The bathroom mirror was simultaneously a window on a barely noticeable scene of an assailant holding a knife. By focusing on the criminal element, Scott seemed to suggest that privilege comes with a social cost—that luxury today is possible precisely because so many people are poor, and that inequality breeds profound resentments. In a way, Scott’s work addressed both the growing popularity of gated communities, where the prosperous live behind the bars of their own fear and suspicion, and the recent proliferation of prison construction.
According to an essay in the catalogue by Mauricio Dias and Walter Riedweg, the vast majority of people in detention are “products of poverty, left out and unable to participate in the American social system . . . the counter results of the American dream.” Their cinema-verité style video “Question Marks” showed Dias and Riedweg interviewing inmates at a Georgia state prison and juveniles in a nearby detention center, then leading these people in art projects to draw pictures of their various dwellings, so that through their renderings, people in each group could communicate with those in the other.

3. Vacancy
I have a friend who says that street criminals don’t just learn to be thugs out of the blue. What he means is that white-collar crimes and improprieties, in business and government, set the tone in society—a kind of trickle-down effect. I’m not entirely convinced by trickle-down theories, but the exhibition did get me thinking about my friend’s remark, particularly when I looked at Betty Beaumont’s piece on Love Canal, whose history appears in the catalogue. Love Canal was a working-class housing development built during the ‘50s on the site of a Hooker Chemical Company dump in upstate New York. In ‘78, when tests revealed serious contamination, resident activists waged what would eventually be a successful campaign for a state-funded evacuation—in the early ‘80s, the New York State government bought the unsafe houses. But then in ‘88 it began reselling many of these structures with guarantees that they were “habitable.” With a camera, Beaumont visited Love Canal when it was a ghost town, but it wasn’t till this year that she assembled her powerfully evocative photos of boarded-up houses into love canal, usa. The stark frontality and nostalgia of Beaumont’s views made me think of Walker Evans, and the way the 15 photos fit in a grid recalled Bernd and Hilla Becher’s prosaic studies of industrial architecture. But an altogether vernacular source must have inspired Beaumont’s dystopian view of undesirable homes for sale—the matted and framed photo displays of houses one typically sees in realtors’ windows.

A striking feature of the houses at Love Canal was their uniformity. While colors may have differed, and the front doors may have been on the left or the right, the overall form was remarkably standardized. Such conformity in the working-class vision of home came under scrutiny in the show in a painting by Hermann Gabler. The windows of his diagrammatically rendered, semi-detached house façade afforded glimpses of bath, bedroom, and dining room which were so schematic, and so proper, that they lacked any trace whatsoever of individual expression. The painted German caption, which was also the title, read, “To be served a coffee in which milk and sugar have been added without having asked for it.” The most obvious feature missing from this petit-bourgeois vision of gemütlich bliss was a doorknob on the front door—another inaccessible dream. And another prison (what if you want your coffee black?). Nearby, Dan Graham’s ‘78 alteration to a suburban house proposed (among other things) replacing a tract house façade with a wall of glass—exposing far more to neighbors than the inhabitants would surely want to reveal. Like Gabler’s piece, his plan draws attention to the way that, as he puts it, “the delimited view that an outside observer has of the interior house through its front window is [ordinarily] arranged to give a picture of conventionally accepted normality.”
By adapting the aesthetics of homes like Philip Johnson’s “Glass House” to a vernacular context, Graham explored how economic status inflects architecture. In the seclusion of a New Canaan estate, glass walls don’t compromise privacy at all; rather, they signify ownership of the surrounding land. They denote wealth and privilege. What we have here is a high/low issue, where Modernism simply doesn’t work for the working class (even though it was supposed to). That’s one idea I took from Anton Vidokle’s untitled aluminum-frame chaise longue with the nylon webbing replaced by a clear vinyl sheet. At a glance, this rather beautiful but ordinary chair looked like it was mass-produced, with materials that couldn’t help but evoke glass and steel. Wal-Mart meets the Bauhaus. But when I sat on it, the vinyl sagged like a hammock. And as it warmed, it sank toward the floor. As transparent as the stuff it was made of, this chair literally didn’t hold up—another empty dream.
One fine quality of “Nobodies Home” was the rigorous, interesting way that artworks talked to each other. Allan McCollum was in the exhibition too, with a trademark surrogate painting, a ‘84 picture-frame casting with blackness where an image would be. In the company of Beaumont’s boarded-up windows and Gabler’s, Graham’s, and Vidokle’s vision of empty domesticity, McCollum’s frame took on a tone of social critique, suggesting that the ideal of home is both transparent and opaque, empty and inaccessible—which brought to my mind an image of placid blue sky glimpsed through the skylights of those otherwise windowless “luxury” apartments in Williamsburg.

Andrew Weinstein

New York, New York

1999