HOUSE (DE)CONSTRUCTED

Kim Booker, February 2017

Hazy memory houses, night time houses, houses as dissolving structures, homogenous clone houses and playful fantasy spaces. Two shows at Victoria Miro ask us to reflect on the psychological, phenomenological and philosophical significance of the places we inhabit. 

Entering Victoria Miro on St. George Street feels a little like entering someone’s home. After ringing the bell for entry, the black double doors unlatch and you squeeze your body awkwardly through one of the half-sized doors. A white screen slides to the left and you emerge into a living room sized space, in the middle of which sits one of Tal R’s opium bed sofas, creating a sense of formality that is, in the gallery setting, unsettling. Made from rag-rug in a patchwork of blues and greys, the geometric coldness and lack of cushioning suggests an absence of comfort, despite the kitsch homeliness of the fabric. Is there anything more unwelcoming than a sofa you can’t sit on? 

Do Ho Suh, Installation view, Do Ho Suh: Passage/s , 1 February –18 March 2017,

Victoria Miro Gallery. Courtesy the Artist, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong, and Victoria Miro, London

(Photography Thierry Bal) © Do Ho Suh

Across town, in Passage/s, on show at Victoria Miro’s Wharf Road gallery, Do Ho Suh focuses on those in-between spaces we often overlook. Nine ‘Hubs’ -  corridors, recesses, doorways, vestibules, are joined to form a long, inter-connecting space that gives the illusion of endlessness. Based on the places in which Suh has lived and worked, his structures have a universality, a dreamlike weightlessness; they become spaces we too could have inhabited. Such Hubs were perhaps only ever passed through, never really occupied, nor the site of specific experience. However, they become monumental in Suh’s translucent fabric reconstructions.

Bachelard’s romanticised view of interior space is enchanting, and you can see a similar forensic examination play out with Suh. He draws our attention to every switch, label, hinge, frame, doorknob, wire, brick, ledge, and panel. He leaves nothing out and we wander through this passageway looking at these everyday details with a renewed, almost childlike sense of wonder.  After all, if we think back through the places we have lived, it can be surprising how little we remember. Whilst our childhood bedroom might still be vividly recalled, the kitchen of that same house may be a blur in our minds.

 

Across both shows, the works remind us that houses can represent many things. They can be intensely private spaces, refuges from the outside world, creating feelings of safety, warmth and comfort. Conversely, houses can be a source of anxiety, containing memories of loss or trauma. Houses are physical structures, comprised of brick, concrete, wood and steel, but also spaces that exist in our minds - constructs of experience, memory and imagination, housing our histories long after we have physically left them, forever bound up with our sense of identity.

Hernan Bas, Preferring the out to the indoor night, 2010.

Acrylic, airbrush, household gloss and block print on linen 152.4 x 182.9 x 5.1 cm 60 x 72 x 2 in

© Hernan Bas (Photographer: Nicola Kuperus) Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London

Because we relive our memories of former homes as daydreams, these spaces become, and remain, part of us throughout our lives. Perhaps this is one reason why the ‘home’ is such fertile ground for artists. Its universality – we all have experiences of ‘home’ – makes it an equally rich territory for the viewer.

 

In Belmar, New Jersey, 1935, Alice Neel, best known for her dynamic, psychologically charged portraits, depicts the timber clad colonial style house she rented in the summer of 1934 with her family. The apparent calm of the suburban street is disturbed by Neel’s sombre palette and the storm that is blowing in. The dark red-purple sky and the lightning bolt above the houses give the painting an ominous quality, suggesting that perhaps all is not well behind the gloomy façade of the building. 

Present in the same room, and in a similar vein, is an oil on paper sketch by Peter Doig; a large, black-bottomed pond pools in from the left and occupies two thirds of the painting. The paint is diluted and washy, the palette limited to brown, white and a dull green. The house looks almost lost, perhaps abandoned on the other side of the water, creating a sense of absence and isolation. 

This is an eclectic gathering of artists that sees Lowry beside Doig, Hernan Bas paired with Chagall and Celia Paul juxtaposed with Alice Neel. The vision is clear, the works are united thematically, yet are diverse in approach; an exploration of dwelling places in all their forms.

“[T]he house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories and dreams of mankind,” wrote Bachelard in The Poetics of Space (1994, p.6.). 

Left: Celia Paul, My First Home, 2016. Oil on canvas, 55.9 x 50.8 cm 22 x 20 in. © Celia Paul Courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro, London (Photo: Stephen White)

Above: Peter Doig, Untitled (Kricket),1999. Oil on Paper, 42 x 59.5 cm/ 16 ½ x 23 3/8 in. © Peter Doig, Courtesy Victoria Miro, London (Photo: Peter Hauck)

Celia Paul’s My First Home, 2016, was painted partly from memory. She was born in Trivandrum, India, though her family returned to England when Paul was still young. The intimate painting shows a one-storey house, seen from a short distance, with doors and windows on all sides and the suggestion of a veranda. “My way of working involves an incredibly painful amount of loss, destroying something you’re pleased with. When you get to the point of making the final image, you’re completely deprived of all confidence,” stated Paul in an interview with the FT last year. The scene is hazy, as if viewed through a blue-tinged mist, the house bathed in a white-yellow light. Shadows of dusty blue make it impossible to see through the windows. Surrounded by tropical trees and foliage, with a mud brown roof, it’s a house as seen in a dream, a distant memory with a spiritual quality. This is a sensitive and tender work; with less melancholy than Paul’s portraits, it evokes feelings of calm isolation, a kind of tropical hideaway.

 

A number of paintings depict homes after dark. In Preferring the out to the indoor night, 2010, Hernan Bas gives us stacks of logs and jauntily angled timber houses under an expressionistic sky. The effect is one of crooked instability, in the centre of which, among nature under the full moon, a young man sits quietly reading, a small black bird by his foot. And then there are the night-time scenes of modern living offered by Jules de Balincourt – the glass towers of a cosmopolitan city and a late-night Californian pool party, composed in garish clashing purples, pinks and reds. Mamma Andersson’s tightly composed works, with their mottled surfaces and textured brushwork, are like strange scenes from a David Lynch movie. Filled with tension, they keep us questioning the nature of the domestic mysteries depicted within.

© 2019 by Assemblage Magazine.

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