Within Vernacular Interior at Hales Gallery, a wooden shack on spindly legs faces the entrance as if keeping vigil, its open doorway like an unblinking eye. Light seeps through the cracks in the cobbled walls, offering a glimpse of a vacant interior. The late artist of “Low Country House” (n.d.), Beverly Buchanan, is known for her concern with Black vernacular architecture, such as the remains of enslaved people’s dwellings, sharecropper and tenant farmers’ housing, and the tobacco barns found across the Southern landscapes she called home. Her conceptual sculptures fused elements from real dwellings she observed, lives of people she knew, and characters she invented. Meticulous and phantasmic, “Low Country House” both documents a mode of dwelling and mythologizes unrecorded lives. It connects external architecture with internal psyche, a key to the surreal atmosphere of this show.
The nine artists in Vernacular Interior explore home across sites lived and imagined. Painting, photography, and sculpture envision alternatives to American aspirations — such as private home ownership — that are structured by race and class exclusion. We witness the tensions in making spaces for not only physical recovery, but also the recovery of memory and ancestry. Absent bodies linger in surroundings; living in, longing for, and looking at a space can complicate its ownership and trouble its physical boundaries.
Towering in the center of the gallery, Cal Siegel’s sculpture “ttrroouubbllee” (2018) abstracts the colonial architecture of New England. Mounted on a white plaster base, two black walls join in a right angle, creating a corner retreat. While I was at the gallery, a blonde child ran into that nook, as if to play hide and seek. The shingles appear to have grown over the structure like fur, leaving it windowless, and each is dollhouse-scale, pairing connotations of wickedness and innocence. The architecture ties the sculpture’s occupation of space to the history of Euroamerican settlers converting Indigenous lands and African bodies into property. Recalling the plumage of Chakaia Booker’s tire sculptures, or Simone Leigh’s impenetrable body-architectures, Siegel’s skin-like shingles magnify a concealed inner presence.
In “Chambre Parentale” (2019), by Esteban Jefferson, the title’s notions of private rest contrast an image of cluttered transition: washes of oil paint fade away household possessions. Objects arranged on an altar-like armchair might desire to remember lost ancestors, or anchor legacies of displacement in the present. Similarly, Curtis Talwst Santiago’s painting “A Luz” (2018) portrays a threshold moment: a figure of mere lines — perhaps an imagined ancestor — walks through an archway in a soft haze. Meanwhile, the light in “Idowu I” (2019), Tajh Rust’s portrait of a woman and child, is stretched taut. It ricochets off gleaming surfaces, as if pulling the figures closer in their embrace. The woman turns away but the child watches us, her eye a guarded portal.
Genevieve Gaignard’s “Dynasty” (2018) further plays with fictional narrative and ancestry. Gaignard is known for performing different characters in her images, troubling the ways race and class become visible. In this photograph, the artist lounges on a leather couch in a spacious room with the curtains drawn. Her pensive expression suggests an ambivalence towards or yearning for a collective past, tucked away in details like the heaped family photographs and Essence magazines. These vernacular images, and their implied circulation across people and time, unsettle what is otherwise depicted as a still, insular space.
Other works transport us to cosmic settings. With a pristine flat style, painter Becky Suss depicts Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk, a closed book that hints at the narrative of evolution within. In Trenton Doyle Hancock’s mixed-media painting, Pepto-bismol pink droplets, collaged shoe insoles, drawings of alien anatomies, and other unearthly forms rain down like asteroids. Two massive mounds are inscribed with the biblical words of the title: “You Are A Liar And The Truth is NOT In You.” Pink and black, the mounds evoke binary values: good and, evil, truth and, lies. Hancock’s larger oeuvre is set in a mythological universe of vegetal creatures, but this work turns my thoughts inwards, towards the lifetime of messages that I have absorbed, some of which have hardened into beliefs.
The conflicts between American domestic values and racial and sexual identities inform Devin N. Morris’ work. In his bricolage of two panels, “12:44 pm; And Then A Breeze Swept Across the Floor, Stirring Out The Window In Disbelief” (2019), two figures run through a puzzling configuration of interiors and exteriors, furnished with found objects like an iron gate and a sequined flower. From a nightstand trapping the blonde-haired figure, to a window revealing a galaxy, the people seem to flee and dream up their environment all at once. Warped perspectives make us conscious of how we place what we see. Throughout the show, homes and private space reflect not only questions of power but also our perceptions, which construct apertures and borders as well as detect presence and absence. At “12:44,” we witness not the breeze itself but everything it touches in its wake.
Vernacular Interior continues at Hales Gallery (547 W 20th St, New York, NY 10011) through July 19, 2019. The exhibition was curated by Adeze Wilford.
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