Visceral, Violent, Charming
Fourteen Sweaty Artists Colonize Three Doomed Houses
"It's great—we just bang through the wall with a hammer when we need to make a hole," said Ben Beres. He was filthy and happy, sitting on the kitchen counter of an emptied-out Capitol Hill rental house that is about to be demolished to make way for condos. Across the counter was a dry-erase board still up from the last residents, who'd listed the illegal substances they planned to take under the heading "Hey Ladies!"
The art being made by banging through walls with hammers is a massive maze of industrial-strength red straps that runs around and through every room in this house. The 4-year-old boy who lives next door—his house is also wrapped, but only on the outside—says it looks like lasers, the kind you see inside bank vaults in heist movies. Beres, a third of the artist trio SuttonBeresCuller, describes it as a drawing. The flatness and brightness of the red strapping—and there are thousands of feet of it, attached and tightened by hundreds of metal ratchets—makes for some very trippy domestic views. Doors, for instance, seem to fight themselves as they're both being held open and being pulled closed in equal measure. In pursuit of these views, which evoke familiar psychological experiences, you'll find yourself trying, precariously, to navigate through these otherwise empty rooms, now fully activated.
The art at these houses—three houses in a row—is part of a project called Mad Homes. It's the contemporary show of the summer, a freer, wilder version of Seattle Art Museum's current art-in-a-parlor survey of 19th-century landscape painting. Mad Homes is the colonization of a morphing location by 14 sweaty artists.
As Beres rests on the counter, artist Allan Packer drills away in the basement next door, finishing an installation that turns an old three-story Craftsman into a mechanical roadside attraction where flat sculptural puppets of a wolf, the moon, a raven, and a wave climb and fall from one story to the next in a cycle. In the kitchen, he's placed a stone that glows red and spins continuously, like it is hatching a plot. All the sculptures are made of canvas; Packer says he thinks of them as paintings.
Outside the house, wood planks with ruler measurements burned onto them are thrust into the ground. They're flood gauges by Meg Hartwig, an artist who relocated to Seattle from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Hartwig is also a carpenter; her meticulously detailed burn patterns, like drawings but made using fire, contrast with the ugly amputations of the limbs of the tree next to the house.
Hartwig nailed a large scene on wood panel to the tree; it depicts a construction crane dismembering a dog. Above the panel, she lopped off the tree's limbs—this tree is scheduled to be demolished along with the houses—and stuck in their places Seussian lollipops made of scrap wood burned with playful patterns. The title of the whole visceral, violent, yet charming installation is Field Dressing.
Next to Field Dressing, out on the lawn, is a copy of the Craftsman house itself. This carcass is a skin of latex rubber that was applied to the house to create an impression. The number of the house—711—is indented in the skin, the inverse of the numbers on the actual house, and dirt and grime from the actual siding have embedded into the skin, making it look tired and nostalgic. "It's the perfect memory," says the artist, Laura Ward, and she means that in the literal sense: The impression is accurate and real. She also means that it's a perfect deathbed partner for this house that's about to disappear, like a sagging soul. The art will live on after the body of the house is dismantled.
It has become something of a trend for artists to install wakelike interpretive services when a building is about to be demolished. It's a tradition dating back at least to the 1970s that has grown especially popular in Seattle the last few years. These moving parties both draw awareness to change and ease it, not necessarily distinguishing between good development and bad. In this case, the demolition of these three homes will make way for more, but more expensive, residences. The organizers of Mad Homes are extremely careful to refer to the coming demolition as a "salvage and recycling" process.
The art is salvaged and recycled, too, broadly speaking. Jason Puccinelli and Elizabeth Potter created a take on Manet's infamous 1863 painting Olympia that places you in the position of the maid through a series of painted spheres that are lit from the inside and videotaped live. You wander into the imagery of the painting like it's a forest—which, considering its depths of racial, gender, and economic darkness, it is.
The Olympia is in a former living room, walls painted burgundy, with a fireplace. Two living rooms away, Luke Haynes stapled a thousand pounds of used clothes to the walls and the floors. Stretchy sweaters look like dancing figures on the ceiling; patterned blankets are wallpaper. As you ascend the stairs to the second level, where the more private business of the house takes place, turn around: There's a wall crawling with underwear.
Haynes evokes delight but also suffocation. Troy Gua has shrink-wrapped the exterior of the same house in plastic. He's embedded a bar code in the wrapping. The front door is left unwrapped, so that upon entering you gain the perspective of being wrapped. It seems touching that a beautiful architectural detail on the porch wasn't cleaned before it was wrapped; you see its dirt through the layers of plastic, which also conducts light ripplingly into the rooms.
Alison Milliman, a trustee of the University of Washington School of Art, is the founder of MadArt, the organization that put on Mad Homes. This is MadArt's third year—it first brought temporary installations to store windows in Madison Park, and last summer, it sponsored several large-scale sculptures at Cal Anderson Park. Mad Homes is far stronger than both of those; the madness here is real.