Cults of personality

Selected by Trevor Smith, curator of contemporary art at the Peabody Essex Museum, the newest Artpace residents explore failed relationships, indoctrination and gullibility, and the homogenization of modern America.

Sterling Allen’s “Housing Edition” comprises three framed paintings and three structures resembling playhouses. Each painting depicts one of the houses, nestled in an idyllic garden setting alongside a peaceful stream. The dreamlike quality of the houses’ surroundings seems eerie and almost laughable since the structures are made of mismatched boards, plywood, and even drawers. The paintings are not perfectly identical; they contain slight variations. Thomas Kinkade’s cheesy, mass-produced pictures of homey cottages come to mind, which seems fitting since Allen commissioned the landscapes from a mail-order company in China.

Fashioned from different scraps of wood, the houses are indistinguishable from one another. Each includes many features that an actual home would have, though they are constructed from random objects. An outdoor faucet sports a round weekly pill organizer in place of a handle. Wooden salad utensils serve as rooster-topped weathervanes. Each rooftop is covered in videocassettes dating from the 1980s to the present, in the same sequence on each mini abode.

The houses’ cookie-cutter quality highlights the universal nature of life in suburban America. Communities across the country are anchored by the same big-box retail stores, and master-planned neighborhoods are filled with homes built in a particular style. This uniformity may inspire fear or disgust in those who value individuality and lament the widespread loss of uniqueness in so many aspects of everyday life. Others may find comfort in that continuity, a sort of affirmation of one’s chosen way of life. Either way, there is an undeniable commonality of experience among individuals of the same nationality and socio-economic background. This inevitable bond is illustrated in the faux power lines Allen has strung from rooftop to rooftop, which link each structure to the next.

“The Golden Space City of God,” by Richard Grayson, consists of a video projected onto a large screen. Aside from several rows of chairs, the only other object in the space is a lit podium supporting an open binder of sheet music. The subject of the work is a choir of talented voices, possessed by people who appear to be fairly normal, though that assumption is called into question upon hearing the words they are singing.

The music is hymn-like, melodic and meditative, yet the lyrics speak of bizarre prophecies involving Satan and a one-world economy. Seemingly conflicting phrases, such as “the wicked people of the devil” and “worship the Anti-Christ or starve to death” inspire confusion over the singers’ allegiance. Pleasing harmonies alternate with robotic chanting to create a chilling effect. The singers’ wide, unblinking eyes and fatuous expressions raise the question, have they been brainwashed? And, yes, as it turns out, the words they are singing came from texts associated with a cult.

Grayson’s use of average-looking people to explore outlandish viewpoints is effectively unsettling. Humans are impressionable creatures, and it is justifiably frightening that we are all susceptible to being duped. As the old saying goes, we worship the gods of our fathers; let us not be too gullible or trusting of anyone.

“When Love Turns With A Little Indulgence to Indifference or Disgust (When)” is the title of Christian Tomaszewski’s installation. It begins in a dim, narrow room containing two objects. On the far wall hangs a calendar which portrays a gorgeous — yet disinterested — femme fatale in shades of black and white. Across the room and just above the floor, a white neon sign proclaims DID NOT EXPRESS IT IN KISSING OR HUGGING OR EVEN TOUCHING. The sparseness of the room, in addition to the imagery within, hints at the frustration of unconsummated desire.

At the end of the gallery, a small corridor leads to two additional rooms. One holds several works on paper and other framed objects. A row of colored lights hangs overhead, and a metal hoop is suspended in the center of the room. While this strange assortment is difficult to interpret, various metaphors regarding love are readily identifiable: One print depicts an archer, poised to shoot an arrow.

Down the corridor, vague noises from a video piece can be heard. The sound both repels and attracts; there are no voices, but chimes, heavy breathing, and, occasionally, a sweet melody. Two projectors share a wall; on the right flash only sequences of color, while black-and-white imagery appears on the left. The film is not a narrative, at least in the traditional sense.

While the pictures do appear to be disjointed, they likely represent the progression of a relationship. The clip begins with a ceramic angel ringing a church bell, the iconic signal for the advent of infatuation. A hand holds two keys against each other — do they match the same lock? This exploration phase leads to discomfort as the two lovers try to adapt, represented in the film by a contortionist performing an impossible pose. Finally, a light bulb is screwed in: a moment of realization that the end is inevitable. A glass breaks; a reckless car chase culminates in a terrific crash. In the end, the love hypnosis is broken. •


Artpace IAR: 09.1
Through May 17
445 N. Main
(210) 212-4900


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