The House That Spite Builds
On Malicious Erection, Everlasting Fights, and Fire's Power
Courtesy the artists and Lawrimore Project
Spite is a step beyond anger. It happens when anger has hardened, you've polished it shiny, and you've fallen in love with it. Now in dangerous territory, you nevertheless can't stop, and you decide it needs a monument. What you do next is inescapably, pigheadedly wrong—and also epically right. You build a spite house.
There is a spite house at 2022 24th Avenue East in Montlake. It is pink stucco on the outside and only four-and-a-half feet wide at one end. Legend has it that a wife put it up after a judge awarded her husband their house and her just the front yard in the divorce. But that's not true. It went up in 1925; the next-door neighbor who wanted the sliver of land it sits on made the landowner such a low offer that he responded by building the little house right up in the neighbor's face. The spiter won: The neighbor moved.
The neighbor should have fought harder, because the law, dreadful downer that it is, was on his side. "Malicious erection" (I know) statutes in many states, including Washington, specifically prohibit spite houses, giving neighbors the right to an injunction or a teardown if the foundation is, say, poured in the dead of night (it has happened). The existence of such laws is a testament to the unstoppable drive to build spite houses, and most of the laws were implemented late in the 19th century, including Washington's. Older East Coast states had more time to litter the land with their spite. Skinny, weirdly shaped, charming, divided-in-half houses for spurned wives, rivalrous brothers, and affronted landowners "uncover our creepy and creeping psychologies of ownership," Will Owen writes in a new limited-edition chapbook called Spite House. They set out in the open the foul "swell of psychic things that exist despite never being meant to be placed alongside each other." They are fights that last forever.
Given the depthless cheer and facade of rationality that pervades American public life, there is something deeply calming about spite houses. They are homicidally sincere, wanton, and unwise. As in the case of Edith Macefield's Ballard house—which in 2007 she refused to sell for a cool million to developers, who had to build around her until she died, inspiring a rash of tattoos depicting her house with the word "STEADFAST" (after her death it was sold, but not to the original developers)—these houses are volcanoes of meaning, like heroes or great works of art. They're a terrific—maybe a little too terrific—premise for an art show. The show is spending this month at Lawrimore Project, curated by Yoko Ott and Jessica Powers. (The Spite House chapbook is part of Spite House the show.) It is both a fascination and a disappointment, maybe inevitably. Little of the art on display has the bilious, committed power of an actual spite house (and much of it seems peculiarly impersonally motivated) or the ability to compete with an odd and unexpected intervention: nature's own fury.
What happened is that precisely on the eve of the show's opening, a house caught on fire in the side courtyard of the gallery. The house was a work of art called There Goes the Neighborhood by the performance trio SuttonBeresCuller, and the only thing convincing about their claim that this wasn't a performance was the fact that they seemed genuinely glum—and that the facade of the gallery itself was broadly singed, its windows blasted out, its insulation melted into a crawling still-life. Boxes full of an entire earlier exhibition, held inches away in storage inside, were nearly decimated. "At first we thought, maybe? Maybe an artist broke in and did this? But arson is not painting a corner black or something. Arson is going too far," curator Powers said later. (The police suspect somebody homeless stole into the open house—maybe not for the first time? It has sat there for months—and accidentally set it on fire.) The remaining visual spectacle is incredibly beautiful (meant both ways, as in very beautiful and beautiful in particular because it is not quite believable).
Now, an act of god and poverty does not provide grounds for fair criticism, but in this case it embodies a level of intensity that is as difficult to achieve in art as it is in life. Spite House is a smart show that succeeds best when it displays less good judgment. As much as I dislike New York artist Aaron Young's cocky, Viacom-scaled, I-make-paintings-with-motorcycles-in-an-arena bullshit, his tumbleweed made of a crumpled-up chain-link fence plated in 24-karat gold—and his intact 24-karat fence obscuring a video by Vancouver's Andrew Dadson—hit exactly the right snarling but formalized tone. Spite houses, after all, are not instantaneous ejaculations: They take formal planning.
When Dadson goes creeping across the roofs of his neighbors' houses in his slightly slowed-down 2005 video, it's a perfect encapsulation of what seethes and seeps through every neighborhood, so invisible and yet so visible. From inside these houses, you might hear his faint steps or you might not—but outside, Dadson is plain as day. The photographs of sections of his neighbors' lawns that he's guerrilla-spray-painted black feel easier, less unlikely, less haunting (though the image of a white picket fence in blackface is a satisfying symbol). I love his white roses set in a vase of black ink: They absorb the ink like a disease, the petals taking on black spots, then the dots join, and eventually the rot becomes mournfully complete. It's not spiteful; it's gothic and melancholy.
Not all the spite is as literal or as contained as Dadson's boundary-stompings. The artworks in the show (as in any group show) spite each other, as with Young's partial blockage of the view of Dadson's video; or they spite you, the viewer. Miami artist Bert Rodriguez's thick white wall—an ongoing and rather heartwarming project wherein he builds white walls with his father, who cannot understand why his son must be an artist, in various locations—is here turned mean. It is the precise width of the gallery's extrawide double door, so the show rebuffs you with a big white nothing. SuttonBeresCuller spited the viewer by blocking the entrance to the white-cube gallery, which people seem to miss entirely, rendering the spite rather ineffectual.
On your way up to the door, you probably missed Matt Browning's contribution: the Seattle artist painted black the pink sections of the gallery's exterior, spiting the architects, two other Seattle artists: Lead Pencil Studio. Christian Kliegel spited them, too, and the gallery's owner, Scott Lawrimore. Kliegel, of Vancouver, broke into the gallery one night before the show was up. He took a look around and made drawings that were then added as tape marks on the floor for his suggested redesign of their space.
Eli Hansen and Herman Beans are spiting the human attempt to spite death with neatness (I think). They made a messy, dirty coffin-house with windows and a bookshelf (the inverse of SuttonBeresCuller's paranoically sterile Homesick, not in this show). They thought people would rummage through the blankets (which I recommend), but people haven't.
What we have here are good artworks not equally served or activated by the theme. They're sort of... spited. In the eternal property war between curators and artists, curators can count this spite house as their own. Which, in a weird way, works.