Installation view of Blow Up at Friedman Benda gallery (all images courtesy Friedman Benda, photography by Timothy Doyon)

A marbled fireplace contains a liberally smoking blaze, and on its mantel sit two candelabra and a funerary urn spilled onto its side, unburdened of some poor forbear’s ashes. In front of the fireplace there is a tiger-skin rug, with the tiger’s front canines preserved, and on the couches that frame the taxidermic throw rug are throw pillows in simple blue and white motifs. Partially veiling the windows that look out onto 26th street are lavender drapes with a matching valence and tasseled tie-backs. A small, portable color television is abandoned in a corner at the foot of a curtain, stuck on an image of someone receiving an incoming pigeon into her waiting hand. It only takes a moment to grok that these objects are all ersatz furnishings — painted corrugated cardboard — and perhaps another moment more to grok that some other things are actually real within this carnival of illustration.

Installation view of Blow Up at Friedman Benda gallery

The nickel-plated steel mesh couches — “How High the Moon” by Shiro Kuramata (1986) — placed in this room are quite solid, though their porous, metal forms are likely uncomfortable to sit on. In another section of the exhibition, a couch that looks carved out of soapstone is actually foam covered by vinyl created by Kristen Wentrcek and Andrew Zebulon — “Section 1” (2018). It might bear a person’s weight. One should also be able to place a baby in the crib, which looks sturdy, though it was designed as if it were plucked out of a Van Gogh interior, curved by the curving wind — “Dancing Crib” (2018) by Saša Štucin and Nicholas Gardner for Soft Baroque. And close by there is a fashionably designed white onesie, “Telfar Simplex Onesie” (no date), by Telfar Clemens, but it’s adult sized. Then there are the objects that are real and fake at the same time, such as the ceramic donuts and pastries (various untitled glazed ceramic pieces made in 2018 by Larry Randolph) that garnish an elegant dining room table of blond oak — Luca Cipelletti’s “XYZ” (2018). One can’t eat them, though their luscious glaze makes them tempting.

What kind of house is this, that ping pongs between two- and three-dimensional representations that are merely fantasy or decorative and pieces that have clear utilitarian use? The press release for Blow Up, curated by Felix Burrichter at Friedman Benda, states that it’s meant to be a scaled-up doll house. With the aid of design firm Charlap Hyman & Herrero, Burrichter, who created and edits the architecture magazine PIN-UP, sought to, “take the miniaturized domestic ideal of the dollhouse and blow it back up to full size.” What happens when this occurs is that the fundamentally contrasting spaces of the theater and the home are brought into inharmonious intersection. One space is meant to be inhabited, while the other is meant to project the illusion of habitation. Thus, the gallery space transformed into an almost showroom attracts and repels my presence; it advances by displaying some lovely furniture pieces, and then hurriedly retreats when I realize that the cookware hanging from the wall can’t survive a real flame.

Another installation view of Blow Up at Friedman Benda gallery

This show pulled me in because it typifies the hyperbolized, idealized images our popular culture projects through the mediums of showrooms, televisions, magazine covers, and the like, while providing aspirational templates for what a home should be. Though here the projection is accomplished in a spirit of elated and winking playfulness that draws contrasts between modern aesthetics and 19th-century ornaments such as candelabra and animal-skin rugs. This room implicitly invites one to visit, but not remain, because no one can live here, in the crease between centuries, in a shadow land where visual representation and base materials overlap. It’s a schizophrenic space; even if it were more habitable, I wouldn’t be able to stay.

Blow Up continues at Friedman Benda (515 West 26 Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 16. The exhibition is curated by Felix Burrichter.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...