Photograph by Jan Liesegang, courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation
“Home” is tricky business. For many, it truly is where the heart is, a touchstone against which all other personal experience is measured, an emotional redoubt that endures in reality or in memory and provides comfort and the illusion of safety.
For others home is hell on earth—a cauldron of conflict and unhappiness, an edifice best left behind, a bars-free prison one struggles to forget and to escape. Freud reckoned it “uncanny,”—unheimlich—an unhomey condition in which objects and experiences deemed pleasurable in childhood become terrifying or repulsive upon mature, adult reflection.
That’s the micro home, the dwelling place. Then there is the bigger home, the home town, home place, the place from which we come, a geography constructed on foundations of experience, knowledge and pride, all bound together with ancestral or tribal ties. Conversely, it may be a place we can’t wait to leave, and for which we develop a distaste so strong that we adopt loyalty to rejection or abandonment rather than devotion.
Three new Pulitzer shows offer connected observations about home, employing sculptural adventures conducted and constructed by the artist Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s; highly refined utilitarian objects from 18th-century France and Italy that levitate into a possessions stratosphere; and an actual house, for generations a “home,” that has devolved into the final stages of decay and soon will disappear, after having been transplanted from a city street into the midst of art.
The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull
Oldenburg’s pioneering, change-provoking re-presentations in cloth and vinyl of homey, everyday kitchen paraphernalia (and comfort food, and object-denizens of dusty corners of basements or garages) command special status in the history of art. Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and an outlaw performance art pioneer named Allen Kaprow lit fuses that produced explosions of astonishment and cleared the way for a sustained fascination with objects hitherto regarded as banal.
This advanced counter-cultural work and the personalities of the artists producing it effectively and temporarily stole the show from formidable post-WWII Abstract Expressionist geniuses. They rode on the back of history into the Land of Pop. Every sculpture in the Oldenburg show works to confirm his commitment to protect the ordinary from a dull existence, and to flip a flaccid light switch to produce a special and enduring illumination.
The Pulitzer’s associate curator Tamara H. Schenkenberg conceived “The Ordinary Must Not Be Dull” show, and she also is responsible for organizing “Exquisite Everyday,” the second of the three exhibition now on view at the Foundation.
From the Merely Useful to the Simply Sublime
As Oldenburg was able to isolate quotidian objects found nearly ubiquitously in American homes, and to assure they’d never be dull again, so in the 18th century artists with imaginations and a keen sense of the power of object-focused desire gave new meaning to excess. These craftspeople, here representing France and Italy, endowed the commonplace—a sauceboat, for example—with elevating virtue. A selection of seven ordinary/extraordinary objects (all but one familiar to us today) delights the eye and dazzles the senses.
Remember, too, that 18th century’s art in all its finery and material creativity had political ramifications. Thirty years after Jean Baptiste Francois Chéret created the silver sauceboat, another artist, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was creating yet another enduring 18th-century masterwork, “La Marseillaise.”
Decline Running on Parallel Tracks
Every component of the two shows is satisfying. How could it not be? Nevertheless, the freshest, most energizing, most exhilarating and penetrating exhibition is “4562 Enright Avenue,” the collaborative work of an enlightened patron supporting curators, administrators, historians, neighbors, architects, and so forth.
The path forward with this audacious project was blazed principally and physically by the visionary German architectural firm raumlaborberlin (space laboratory Berlin), directed here by Jan Liesegang of Cologne.
Raumlaborberlin came together in 1999, 10 years after the Berlin Wall fell. In the decade following the fall of the Wall and the reunification of Germany, Berliners and the world saw dramatic reformations and reclamations of space, as well as of form and culture.
The post-Wall work is not all good, but most of it was informed by lofty ambitions; years of neglect and cultural and civil affronts required the activation of an extensive civic and architectural menu of improvements.
Important here, and critical to the influence of this exhibition, is a recognition and understanding of the kinship of Berlin slums and to neighborhoods of St. Louis that exist footsteps away from the Delmar Divide.
While it would be wrong to overlook the secure neighborhoods and bright spots of North St. Louis, the prevailing conditions north of Delmar are the stuff of sadness, if not tragedy. Yet as urbanist Michael Allen notes, the politics of lamentation have been exhausted: The City of St. Louis has lost so many buildings, and so many of the inhabitants, that neither mourning nor marching does much good anymore, and obviously never did much good anyway.
Although there are brilliant exceptions, we are stuck with a wretched, raggedy fabric covering large sections of the city. What should replace the politics of lamentation is a politics of action distinguished by orderly, organic, dynamic growth and reclamation.
In “4562,” the presentation of the web of problems was accomplished by physically moving a decaying house—a home once—from its 125-year-old address. It sits now in the main gallery of the Pulitzer, and suggests strongly and symbolically, obviously and subliminally, that St. Louis cease its dithering, the better to face up to a crumbling infrastructure ignored far too long, and to do something about this physical and inhumane situation.
Now: The stirring of politics and sociology into the stew of the visual arts, including the art of architecture, is dangerous business, and the slope leading from a strong visual statement to the strident and unpoliced messages of propaganda is a steep, slick one indeed.
However, when everything else has failed, it is not intemperate or ethically dangerous for art to assume the posture of advocate. This advocacy, achieved with humane planning and extraordinarily hard work, confronts every visitor to the Foundation who spends time in its affecting and humbling exhibition. It spirits “home” from the kitchen and the suburban garage and the aristocratic salle à manger into the world of memory, psychology and civic consciousness.
Raumlaborberlin proposed an investigation into various ways the diverse “we” live in an urban world, made plans to dig deep in asking why we make the choices that lead us to do so, and asked how those decisions inform the ideal and reality of home. Or alternately, how they offer cause for abandoning homes that sustained families for generations, to various means of destruction. The firm presents unvarnished, un-romanticized realities and observations that may, in the ideal, inspire growth and positive evolution.
The physical mission was daring: to move the interior of a structurally unsound, late 19th-century house from 4562 Enright Avenue to the Pulitzer building 1.8 miles away. In this new context, it would become subject to intense and diverse architectural and sociological and emotional scrutiny.
Large parts of the house have been reassembled, so now, when a visitor enters the main gallery, the first and second floors of the house, without their brick epidermis, come into view. If antennas are out, the visual, intellectual and emotional qualities of “home” become clear.
What one person may regard as rubble and ruin is Xanadu to others, including this writer. Notions of beauty are challenged and re-evaluated. A view into the heart of decay—and regarding this as parallel to the demise of the city in the 20th century—is profoundly instructive, and profoundly disturbing.
If you take a walk through the transported and transfigured interior of the once-a-home-house, think about its civic and historic implications. You may well understand from that examination that as this house fell into ruin, St. Louis, once one of the resplendent Cities on the Hill, a place of prosperity and model of exceptionalism, fell victim to decay simultaneously.
City streets and urban populations, particularly in North St. Louis, are snaggled in many places today by decaying buildings and vacant lots and alleys filled with trash, as the inhabitants of these quarters face daily the indignities of second-rate services of all sorts. Raumlaborberlin and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation present a challenge to a city that continues to wring its hands to get to work, perhaps with programs that resemble the W.P.A.
Bus tours, preservation preachments, sentimentalism and endless, self-serving, repetitious, facilitated conversations simply are not going to do the job.
What can be done, and what art in its revelatory capacity can assist us in accomplishing, are long-range, ambitious, organic solutions that grow from obvious need rather than arcane academic ideologies.
The ideas raumlaborberlin commits itself to accomplishing are neither ideological nor Olympian, but are dedicated to the idea of opening the door of this abandoned home and unlocking its spirit, the better to channel the information it presents with the hope of producing what should be—and can be—in St. Louis.
Kristin Fleischmann Brewer, director of public projects, and Sophie Lipman, public projects and outreach organizer, coordinated the development of the Enright project for the Pulitzer.
For more information on the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, on these exhibitions and on special events programming, go to http://pulitzerarts.org.