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SUMMIT, New Jersey — Last month I reviewed the exhibition, Simon Dinnerstein: Revisiting The Fulbright Triptych, at the Mitzi & Warren Eisenberg Gallery of the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey; Interior Monologues is a group show in the center’s main gallery, and it poses a parallel, and equally intriguing, view of domesticity. Both exhibitions are curated by Mary Birmingham and run through June 16.
Dinnerstein’s “Fulbright Triptych” (1971–74) is a dream-image of himself, his wife, and baby daughter, constructed from locations in Brooklyn and Hessisch Lichtenau, Germany. One of the first pieces you encounter in Interior Monologues, “Hidden in Plain Sight as It Has Always Been” (2018), an acrylic painting by Paul Wackers, contains similarly layered imagery. According to the artist’s statement on the wall label:
This painting came about as a composite of parts of the house I grew up in and my current apartment, so it has this sense of hidden truths and familiarity of place while not being any specific place.
Like the center panel of Dinnerstein’s triptych (which, if the gallery owner George Staempfli, who funded the completion of the painting, had his way, would be the entire picture, without the left and right portrait panels), Wackers’s canvas depicts a window, but looking out on a leafy garden rather than a depopulated town. And, as in the triptych’s composition, there are art-related materials arranged around and under it.
While the painting is clearly meant to be a homey scene, there is still a chilliness about its stylized, almost schematic shapes. The light is flat, the contrasts are harsh, and the colors, dominated by mossy greens, are standoffish. The composition’s complexity and the artist’s peculiar technique — it’s hard to tell whether he used stencils to create his myriad, overlapping shapes, or if they were first painted on a nonporous surface, peeled off, and then attached to the canvas — convey intellectualism over emotion.
That disparity — between what we expect from domesticity and what may lurk beneath the surface — generates a finely wrought tension that coils throughout the show, which Birmingham has assembled from an imaginative range of subjects and media.
The screen of Dana Levy’s four-minute video, Intrusions — A Ghost From The Future (2014-19), is divided into a two-by-two grid; in each of the four cells, the artist has superimposed images of herself moving about the rooms of Wave Hill (the Bronx mansion and artists’ residency) onto vintage photographs taken of the same rooms in the 1920s, while Franz Waxman’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) plays on the soundtrack.
The music is interrupted only by the voice of the actress Judith Anderson, who plays the creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in the film, at the moment she shows Joan Fontaine, the new bride of Lawrence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, the bedroom belonging to Rebecca, the previous Mrs. de Winter, now deceased.
It’s the simplest of tricks for Levy to fade in and out of the interiors like an errant spirit, but it’s also an effective means of animating the history of any room whose intimacies you’ve shared with unmet, long departed strangers.
A dream memory also breathes life into Erin Diebboll’s “Amir’s House” (2017), a large architectural drawing, part floor-plan, part elevation, of the home where the artist’s father-in-law spent his childhood in Tel Aviv. As she writes in her statement on the wall label, the house was demolished 50 years ago but Amir’s recollection of it was so vivid that he “calculated the meters of every room […].”
To call it an architectural drawing, though, is to ignore the loveliness of its grace notes, like the vegetable garden in the back, rendered in delicate lines and tones, and the gray stucco, amber shingles, and white louvers of an outbuilding.
Such a detailed memory might take shape in the mind’s eye as something akin to the gleaming, idealized rooms fabricated by Susan Leopold — spare, tiny spaces shining with the cold brightness of a refrigerator light.
Expanded by side mirrors into passages to nowhere, these antiseptic veneers feel as haunted as the Gothic clutter of Levy’s video, especially “Showers” (2018), a construction of gray walls and yellow and white tiles; it could be the shower room of a typical Y, but its miniaturization concentrates the array of light and shadow into an emptiness equal parts foreboding and forsaken.
Memory is particularly pungent in Leopold’s dioramas; they evoke the realms of childhood imagination (doll houses, Legos, model train villages), thereby plumbing the origins of the creative impulse as well as a Platonic ideal of home; their vacant interiors represent both the comfort of the familiar and the estrangement that the familiar can compel.
Themes of attachment and distance carry through the work of the other four artists in the exhibition, whose centerpiece is an elaborate installation by Anne Muntges from her ongoing project Skewed Perspectives (2013-2019). For this series, Muntges primes real and fabricated objects with white paint, and then covers their surfaces with thousands of black hatch marks.
The assemblage — chairs, hearth, rug, bookshelf, ironing board, fan, wall phone, apples, running shoes, and other household items — looks like a three-dimensional children’s book illustration or Edward Gorey drawing. And like Leopold’s sculptures, it delivers an unstable combination of nostalgia and edginess. For all of its virtuoso intricacy, the most eye-catching forms are two empty picture frames, one leaning on the mantelpiece and the other standing on the bookshelf; their unexplained voids disrupt the surreal homeyness of the scene, declaring a sense of incompletion, an emotional hole unfilled.
Casey Ruble makes simple monochromatic collages out of handmade silver-pigment paper; the three pieces on display are from her series, The Terrible Speed of Mercy, which depict, as she writes in the wall label, “locations across the country where race riots have erupted. Although a few of these riot locations still bear the scars of their past, most are seemingly ordinary today— empty parking lots, industrial buildings, hotels, strip malls.” It is important to note that by “race riots,” the artist is referring to violence against racial minorities (African Americans and Native Americans), and not to the conventional use of the term.
The anonymous details she constructs — an elevator bank, a doorway, a jury box — may depart from the domesticity of the other works in the show, but their layered histories relate directly to the haunted walls of Dana Levy’s video and the composite homes of Paul Wackers’s painting. Likened by Ruble, accurately, to tombstones, these banal interior views insinuate that the resurgent resident evils of racism, nationalism, and white supremacy may well be on the march thanks to our failure to make peace with these ghosts.
Matt Bollinger, a figurative painter from Independence, Missouri, has become one of our most articulate chroniclers of Trump’s America. The plainspokenness of his forms and the diluted acid of his palette — the colors of faded postcards — speak to working-class despair as indelibly as the bleakness of his imagery.
“Dawn in Her Ciera” (2019) is a painting of a woman wearing a CVS name tag (“Dawn”), lacing up her work boot in the backseat of a car. For a brief moment the canvas felt out of place — what did it have to do with the idea of home? — but a moment later I realized that the car is her home, even as she holds down a job.
Bollinger’s subtlety, his willingness to allow his work to steal up on us, is an invitation to share what would be, for most of his viewers, a foreign experience. In “Gun Cabinet” (2019), he presents several hunting rifles and a pistol stowed away in a wood-framed glass cabinet beside a dresser and mirror. The intimate touches he includes — a black-and-white snapshot of a woman’s head tucked into the mirror frame, and a pair of moccasins under the dresser — imbue the scene with the kind of commonality that, without pushing the point, could lead to empathy.
The exhibition also includes Apartment 6F (2017), one of Bollinger’s labor-intensive, hand-painted animations. It is an elliptical, semi-autobiographical tale that, in a reversal, doesn’t concern the heartland but rather a young web designer in the big city, who is left alone when his wife goes away for a few days. Alienated from the people he meets, who are no more happy or fulfilled than those he left behind in the Midwest, he undergoes a near-psychedelic experience and finds peace only when his wife walks back through the door.
Their reunion is just about the only appearance of unalloyed serenity in the show, other than Summer McCorkle’s five-minute video, Song for 360 Court Street (2014). Shot at Residency Unlimited in Brooklyn, whose building is a former church, the video features singers performing a canticle by Saint Francis of Assisi, first in separate harmonic parts and then together in the loft of RU’s gallery.
The effect of the parts merging into the whole is redemptive, and stunning — a secular spirituality forged from the invisible ligatures binding us to architecture, music, and each other, resonating with an understated bliss.
Interior Monologues continues at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey (68 Elm Street, Summit, New Jersey) through June 16. The exhibition is curated by Mary Birmingham.