BALTIMORE — I’m at the front door of artist Joseph Young’s house, in the middle of a lovely block in the lovely neighborhood of Hampden. It’s a perfect October day. Instead of a welcome mat, I just see the word “WELCOME” printed on the porch where the mat should be.
This first encounter with Young’s MicroFiction RowHouse might be a bit of winking humor, but it belies entirely the depth and range of the installation itself. Through the use of the photocopy transfer technique, Young placed nearly 50 works of microfictions throughout his two-story home. As the genre implies, the texts range in length from as little as a handful of letters to a full sentence or two. Taken together, they tell a story — or parts of multiple stories — about a fictional family that once lived in the house.
The straightforward concept means much of its effectiveness depends on the placement of texts. Visitors are not given much to go on beyond a sheet of paper that lists the titles of each text, which are scattered throughout the house on kitchen cabinets and towels, blankets, and hanging shirts, walls, and ceilings. And as far as the content goes, you’re given lyrical abstractions as often as tantalizing, concrete facts.
“I’ve definitely been influenced and inspired by artists who use text as a primary medium, people like Glenn Ligon, Jenny Holzer, On Kawara, Barbara Kruger, and many others,” Young wrote in an email conversation. “I’ve long had the want to make writing in some way concrete and as much for the eye as for the brain, as I imagine many other artists have as well. Barbara Kruger has an entire room at the Hirshhorn installed with her text work, which was an inspiration for me.”
I’m struck by the installation’s competing and complementary forces of absence and presence. At times, the absence is literal: one of the first things you see upon entering the house is a cluster of picture frames without pictures; instead, you see words like “REDWOODS,” “THE OLD COUNTRY,” and “GRANDMA.” A serving plate on the dinner table reads “CORNBREAD,” and I thought of the welcome mat that wasn’t. You’re asked to fill in the narrative vacuum by assuming faces and memories.
The sense of presence is maddeningly, beautifully fleeting. You learn of a girl, then a boy, in bits and pieces throughout the living room and kitchen, and you are in effect retracing their steps as you learn about them. The back room in particular feels like its own chapter, hinting at love found and love lost. You find the word “ENTANGLEMENT” on the wall near the floor, and out the window you see the backyard is all but fully choked with ivy. At the top of a set of stairs is a longer text titled “The Argument (Learning to Count).” I missed it the first time I walked through the house but found it the second time, and in a heartbeat I was transported to my own childhood, sitting at the top of the stairs, listening to my parents argue.
The texts are uniformly minimal but they nonetheless triangulate an existence. It’s eerie, to be frank — eerie but compelling. I found myself making multiple circuits around the house, wondering if I had missed something, then hoping I’d missed something so I could add to the picture in my heart, find an answer to something I wasn’t sure I had asked. There is a strong urge to physically confront the space, to open drawers and lift up mattresses and look behind the shower curtain as if to hunt for another chapter of the story. It’s frustrating in a good way.
The parents’ bedroom ups the stakes of the narrative by offering more reference points for the family. On the far wall, you read: “They were all here — this one side of the room — when that news came on the radio.” The word “LUMP” is on the mirror, in a much smaller font size, and it’s hard not to think about cancer. On the bedspread itself you find a piece titled “Conceit (Conceive).”
The window next to the bed was open as I read the text, and the breeze lifted the curtains ever so slightly. It was the only movement in the room, and it leant an improbable earthliness. These microfictions read like poetry; they probe the space between familiarity and the abstract, and it is a testament to Young’s sense of visual placement and his writing abilities that the rooms vibrate with the world he’s created with little artifice — there’s an effortlessness to the way you accept this story and this house as intertwined.
Young picks a few moments to play with the architecture of the space. He wraps a microfiction around a pillar; another slants between the staircase and a closet door. The latter makes an explicit reference to its physical positioning:
the light an
on her page. Geo
metry, Lorde, the vis
ions of Saint Joan. Her
eye was tool to the home.
“Her eye was tool to the home” sat with me for a long time as a half-poetic, half-instructive line that spoke to the installation’s experience. You are both reader and viewer; the space is both home and expression; and the eye is the tool that brings the family to life, briefly, before it disappears again into the woodwork.
The texts occasionally resist continuity, or at least remain walled in poetic ambiguity. There is a boy and girl and a love story; there are parents and children; but without names, the pronouns start to blur, and it means many texts offer multiple readings. As a whole, the installation is self-contained, and it brims with creative possibility.
“I am looking forward to the time when — after I’ve been so accustomed to the stories and I hardly see them at all — I’ll have the sudden inspiration to take in the house as a whole, traveling from room to room and story to story and discovering the relationships of the parts to the whole,” Young added. “I think that when that happens, I’ll learn things about my [fictional] family that I didn’t know in the thick of writing and installing their stories.”
Young hosted several literary readings and workshops since MicroFiction RowHouse was born, and he sees it as a living thing in search of its next iteration. “I would like to continue to program events — workshops, readings, and other things — under the banner of MicroFiction RowHouse,” he said, “since these community events were always part of the plan for the project and enrich it so much by bringing other artists and visitors into the fold.”
Young has created a fictional place that overlaps with the physical world. It’s a difficult and special act, with an unknown yet exciting conclusion.
Joseph Young’s MicroFiction RowHouse is on view indefinitely and intermittently in Hampden, Baltimore. See the project’s website for more details.