Mead Art Museum exhibit takes a look at what makes a home

  • Far left, “Verona Walk, Naples, Florida USA,” 2012 photograph by Edward Burtynsky.

  • “D’ville 007,” 2012 inkjet print on archival paper by Filip Dujardin. Image courtesy of Highlight Gallery

  • “Giacometti,” photomontage from “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” by Martha Rosler c. 1967-72. Image courtesy of Martha Rosler

  • “Red Stripe Kitchen,” photomontage by Martha Rosler from “House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home” c. 1967-72. Image courtesy of Martha Rosler

  • Above, “Schroeder House (from Pictures of Chocolate),” 2009 Digital C-print by Vik Muniz.

  • Center, “Seven Steps East,” 1993 mixed media by Radcliffe Bailey.

Staff Writer
Friday, March 09, 2018

There are different ways to define a house. There’s the physical side, of course — the building’s design, size and colors — as well as the thematic elements, like how a house can reflect issues such as class, wealth, history, memory, even politics.

A new exhibit at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College takes on that subject with a show featuring photography, painting, sculpture and mixed media, representing the work of 32 modern artists.

From an aerial photo of a sprawling luxury housing development, to photos that juxtapose images of the Vietnam War with pictures from home magazines, to elaborate models of houses, “House: Selections from the Collection of John and Sue Wieland,” offers a range of views of what we might consider “home.” 

The show’s origin is a unique one: The artwork is all from the personal collection of John and Sue Wieland, who recently donated $3 million to the Mead. John Wieland, a 1958 graduate of Amherst College who has had a long career as a home builder in the South, has, with his wife, been collecting art for decades that’s focused exclusively on houses.

“Right from the start, John wanted to have a collection that was devoted to what he knew — the home,” Mead Director David Little said during a recent tour of the exhibit. “He sought out curators who knew the field, he listened to them carefully, and he’s been well advised. You can see all that in his collection.”

The Mead exhibit, which runs through July 1 and takes up four of the museum’s galleries, includes 58 pieces, mostly photographs, including some of considerable size, including an approximately 5x7 foot color image of hundreds of homes along lakefront property in Naples, Florida.

The aerial image, by Edward Burtynsky, depicts a sort of housing archipelago, with long, sinuous lines of land that have been carved out of a lake, presumably by dredging and landfill, in an intricate geometric pattern. Each of these slender peninsulas is stuffed with houses, most of them evidently with their own swimming pools.

“It’s really mind-boggling in Florida to see some of these planned communities,” said Little.

Another photo, in the same gallery, offers a disturbing look at a less luxurious American home. The tidy, green backyard of a compact house in Raymond City, West Virginia gives way to looming gray smokestacks and a cooling tower of a coal-fired power plant perhaps 60 yards in the distance, just beyond a thin screen of trees.

The photo, by Mitch Epstein, seems an acute commentary on the impact that energy consumption has on the country’s social and geographical landscape.

The Mead exhibit also offers some occasional flashes of humor. Belgian photographer Filip Dujardin builds surreal photomontages of homes by layering multiple digital images. In his print “D’Ville 007,” he has taken a photo of a half-timbered house and multiplied by a factor of about 20 to produce a sprawling, gravity-defying suburban “castle” of the same construction — with a four-car attached garage.

House beautiful?

A centerpiece of the show is an enormous model of a 1920s-era house by Dutch installation artist Hans Op de Beeck. His slate-gray “House by the Sea,” close to six feet high (though mounted on its huge stand, it’s even taller than that), takes up one whole gallery at the Mead.

It’s like an elaborate doll house, but a vacant, moody-looking one, with lots of little details that point to the past departure of its occupants: a room with overturned chairs and tiny, empty wineglasses on a table; another with bare walls and a bed frame stripped of its mattress.

“It really creates a kind of melancholy mood,” Little said of the model, which is composed of balsa wood, plywood, polystyrene, glass and paint. “It’s like an old house that might be the centerpiece of a horror or suspense film.”

A series of photomontages by Martha Rosler, housed in a special section in the Mead’s main gallery, also offers a foreboding take on the notion of the beautiful American home. They date from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the height of the Vietnam War.

For her portraits, Rosler took images from “House Beautiful” magazine and merged them with scenes from the war — to devastating effect. In one, a Vietnamese woman carries her wounded child up the staircase from a modern, airy living room. In another, two U.S. soldiers seem to probe for landmines in a hallway just beyond a gleaming kitchen.

And in “Giacometti,” a plush, carpeted living room that includes a sculpture by the Swiss artist of the same name looks out to seeming “window views” of piles of corpses by a muddy riverbank.

The exhibit includes a good number of more experimental and unusual images of houses. One of the most interesting is the mixed-media piece “Schroeder House (from Pictures of Chocolate)” by the Brazilian photographer and sculptor Vik Muniz. It’s a chromogenic print of a famous house built in 1924 in the Netherlands that Muniz modified with melted chocolate syrup.

And Jose Dávila, a Mexican artist and architect whose work includes installations, sculpture and photography, plays with the notion of space and contrast in 13 color photographs of houses. He has cut the image of the house from each photo, leaving striking silhouettes of all shapes and sizes against varied color backdrops.

For the ultimate commentary about how a house can illustrate the gap between the haves and have-nots, there’s David Goldblatt’s photo “George Nkomo, Hawker, Fourways.” Taken in a barren section of South Africa, it shows a black fruit vendor, his produce mounted on a flat piece of wood set atop a garbage can, leaning against a large billboard for a planned housing development.

On that billboard, the artist’s vision of these luxury villas promises Tuscan styling, “top security” and “fully walled private gardens.” The inhabitants of the dream houses, needless to say, are all white.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on “House” and other exhibits at the Mead Art Museum, visit amherst.edu/museums/mead.