It’s a long way from a delicate bird’s nest to a barbed-wire fence at the Mexican border, and there are stranger bedfellows still in “Picturing Home,” an engaging exhibition juried by Emory professor Jason Francisco and High Museum curator Julian Cox for the Emory Visual Arts Gallery.
The show also brings home (forgive me) art’s chameleon-like mutability. A work can take on a new life and meaning simply by changing a variable, be it the viewer’s background, the cultural backdrop or, to get to the relevant point here, the context in which it is seen.
The curators did an admirable job of orchestrating disparate works to build a thoughtful, affecting and sometimes unexpected perspective on the rich connotations of “home.” Yet the show, which I reviewed in the AJC, could have been even stronger had they attended a bit more to the works as individual objects as well.
For example, Magda Biernat’s “San-Zhr Pod Village, Taiwan” is a powerful photo of an abandoned development. The image of woebegone futuristic residences, stacked like so many battered Easter eggs in a verdant landscape, taps into the apocalypse anxiety found in a lot of contemporary art.
It changes like a chameleon in the company of Ray Klimek’s “Swoyersville, Pennsylvania.” Juxtaposed to this view of a tidy, carefully tended yard, which abuts a lunar hillside that is the remnant of the mining industry, the village might be interpreted as another junked-up intrusion in the landscape, and a commentary on defiling the environment.
The story behind the scene is even more interesting. According to a blog entry by Taiwan-based photographer Craig Ferguson, who has done a photo series as well as a YouTube video, San-Zhr is an architectural pariah because it is the equivalent of a haunted house. Its super-modern look makes it an especially ironic example of the persistence of superstition in contemporary life.
Coming cold to two photographs from George Bedell’s “Trading Spaces,” I took my cues from some of the details — a sheet in a child-friendly animal pattern draped over a window in one and a cot with a pink sheet and a simple drawing of a house on the cinder-block wall in the image at left — and surmised that they depicted some Third World children’s hospital. Clicking through the gallery of the whole series on Bedell’s website, I came across the same room plastered with pictures from girlie magazines. Oops. “Trading Spaces,” it turns out, is a documentary project about migrant-worker housing, and it’s not in the Third World but in northern Maryland. This information gives the photo a different complexion.
True, these works stand just fine on their own and function effectively in the exhibition. True, viewers can exercise their own imaginations and come up with interpretations that are as valid as any other. Yet I can’t help but feel that their experience could have been that much richer with the addition of a bit more background.