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Spending time: Fred Holland’s Geography of Thought.

Home, Slight Home
By David Brickman

Home Extension
University Art Museum, through April 10

There are so many ways to evoke the concept of home. More than a mere dwelling, it’s also representative of who we are, what we feel, how we recognize ourselves—where we truly live.

In the exhibition Home Extension at the University Art Museum, co-curators Sabine Russ and Gregory Volk have brought together the work of 10 international artists who convey different aspects of this theme with reasonable clarity. By exploring such subjects as daily routine, native language, domestic appliances, isolation, family and homelessness, these artists attempt through repetition, transformation or recontextualization to engage the viewer in an inner dialogue on reconsidering the familiar.

With a full smorgasbord of media and nationalities, the show provides Capital Region residents with an extension of their own homes, in that this is not work we are likely to get the chance to see around here very often, if ever again; most of the artists are foreign-born and all of them show internationally as well as in New York City.

For the curious and/or travel-weary, this is a very welcome opportunity. But I feel compelled to warn those expecting brilliant discoveries that it is a cool, postmodern world out there, and most of the works presented here offer very little to get excited about. Not that they are incompetent or lacking in intelligence, but there appears to be neither great passion behind them nor sufficient payback to spending time with them.

There are a number of possible reasons for this disappointment, ranging from curatorial shortcomings to a generally lackluster international art scene. Whatever the case, it’s too bad such an ambitious undertaking has turned out to have fallen so flat.

Among the highlights is an installation of collected words by Karin Sander, in which handwritten samples of some of the more than 100 languages spoken in New York are reproduced as digital photographs and mounted directly to the wall. A worn stool “shipped from the artist’s home in Stuttgart” provides a spot to sit and contemplate this wall of Babel.

As an eager international traveller and enthusiastic linguist, I couldn’t resist this presentation—but I wasn’t convinced that it’s a work of art, and my doubt is strengthened by the artist’s own words, in which she describes the overarching project that generated this display as a “research project in linguistic anthropology.” So, by simply presenting some of the research on a wall, we have created compelling art? I don’t think so.

A second piece in the upstairs gallery by Sander confirms my suspicion of laziness—a small primed canvas is hung there, with the explanation that it has hung in the artist’s various homes over the years since 1988, thereby acquiring a patina from these places and becoming a painting not “made by the artist, [but] by the spaces where the artist has lived and worked.” And the result is as completely devoid of interest as it sounds.

Ragna Róbertsdóttir, Fred Holland and Sebastiaan Bremer, on the other hand, seem willing to work way too hard for similarly uninspiring results.

Róbertsdóttir has transported volcanic gravel from her native Iceland and painstakingly stippled two large rectangles of gallery wall with it, creating abstract textural designs of charcoal gray and white. They look pretty cool up close, where you can feel the roughness of the little stones, and from an extreme angle, where they meld into overall blackness. But, from a distance, where one would expect the images to coalesce into something worth all the trouble, nothing really happens. They just look like areas of dark and light texture—not much evoking the exotic geologic mysteries of Iceland, as promised.

Holland, an African-American, has drilled and strung on a wire thousands of pennies, creating a snake that is suspended from the very high ceiling and lands in a coil on the floor. It looks like it must weigh at least a ton and took a lot of time—and then you move on. His other two contributions to the show consist of two square trays, one containing black beans in a sort of Zen arrangement around a disc of dark marble and a white crystal, the other making a vague target design using nothing but black-eyed peas.

The press release (presumably using text from the show’s as-yet unpublished catalogue) says “Holland’s ephemeral installations become personal testimonies to the magic imbedded in black folk art and the sensibilities rooted in home, migration, and longing.” OK, whatever.

Bremer is a doodler. He takes very big photographs (apparently not his own) and draws obsessively on them in ink, making endlessly complicated loops and trails of dots until there’s a sort of shadow image on top of the photograph’s own shadowy image. The hallucinogenic result is like a puzzle, peppered with hidden elements such as windows, chairs and cups, as well as words and numbers. His skill and patience are remarkable—the final pictures, however, are unsatisfying, though they do at least entertain.

Actually funny are the three electrified constructions by Ward Shelley, pieced together from odd bits of domestic accessories, tools and motors. Object lessons in futility, his idiotic robots behave pointlessly—one, a lamp with a hammer in it, keeps rolling itself against the wall; another, titled Ambitious Toaster, tries to boost itself onto a shelf, then gives up and crashes to the one below. They’re one-liners, but they do make you laugh.

The only artist here who completely captured my interest happens to be a photographer (call me biased). Joachim Koester, a Dane, has assembled a series of 16 fairly large prints, all but three of them color, taken in an extreme northern outpost of arctic Canada called Resolute. The series is a collective portrait of a village perched where nothing seems to live apart from the people stubborn enough to stay there.

There are the buildings, wires and pipes—and sky, water, snow and rock. One image is a close-up portrait of an intense young woman; most of the rest are landscapes of the village and its environment, very well-composed and printed and framed to the edges in white for a clean, unsentimental presentation. The sequence, which takes up two walls, is a poetic elegy to the fragility of our existence, and the fact that the mere idea of home can be enough to make people stay in a very hostile place.

Also included in the show are a video and an installation by Kimsooja, a video installation by Beth Campbell, three acrylic paintings by Odili Donald Odita and two videos by Roman Signer.

 


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