"This House is Not a Home" at Southside Hub of Production

A wonderful exhibition just closed at Southside Hub of Production in Hyde Park Chicago.

This Hyde Park mansion on the U of C campus is no longer a home in the regular sense. Traditional family life has been displaced by a larger sense of home and community life. The house at 5638 S. Woodlawn Avenue is now a home for vibrant creative and social activity. A recent exhibition in the house, curated by Lara Shaeffer and John Preus, included four floors of art by 38 artists.

Some of the work in this exhibition was installed in a gallery-like presentation, for example, Rachel Herman's large photographs of families with their gilt ornate frames lined a room that was once probably the formal dining room. And Kate Baird's charming paintings hung in a in an upper-floor bedroom. But many pieces were site-specific. For example the meditational experience honoring the goddesses of water filling an upstairs bathroom, with spinning stars sprinkled across the walls and numerous references to the spiritual elements of water.

Some installations seemed permanent fixtures in this converted home. A children's play room lined with shelves overflowing with crafting materials and paper. The low tables and chairs bespeaking Saturday drop-off art classes for neighborhood children. And a buy-on-honor thrift store contains artwork, clothing knock-knack and the assorted brim-a-brace common to thrifts worldwide.

A nearby room was lined with appeals for changes in the criminal justice system. One set of these an extremely moving display documenting a project in which photographers create images requested by inmates interred in permanent solitary confinement at Illinois' TAMMS supermax prison. The inmates' hand-written descriptions were displayed, rather than any resultant images…and these are truly photographic: A request for a photograph of a horse rearing on hind legs, included a specific request to make the photograph in a cold environment, so the horse's breath would be visible in the air.

Down, or up (depending on your direction) one stairwell, family snapshots were arranged chronologically. If you began at the bottom, you began in what appeared to be the early 1960's. Progressing up the stairs followed the birth through childhood, adolescence and middle age, focusing on one man's life journey. Reviewing the presented images, you could piece together a narrative -- however invented -- following his marriage, births of children, experiences with alcohol (over)consumption, apparent explorations of self-identity, and carving the family Thanksgiving turkey. These snapshots offer an opportunity for voyeurism into another's life experiences, and at the same time raise questions about how much you can truly know about someone by viewing photographs of their life. Photographs are documents, but how much of the reality do they convey? How much of what you understand about people is manufactured by the arrangement of the images? Are they even really all pictures of the same family?

A video installation in the house basement intrigued, not the least because it offered the opportunity to be viewed either while seated in the same room as projector and screen, or alternatively from behind a "peeping Tom" screen of reflective glass, placing your own reflectd visage as a ghostly presence within the video image. The piece's intentionally echoing soundtrack was a muffled, ethereal quality.

John Preus' reclaimed and modified furniture pieces offered places for both physical and intellectual repose. Humorous details in his works intrigue and delight. A desk in the first floor entrance room (the parlor, perhaps) contained miniature books and cubbyholes to tickle the mind, and an attached chair was both visually organic and functionally comfortable.

The home's pantry contained a fascinating installation of kitchen and dinnerware: plastic, contemporary, antique, etc. mashed and piled up into corners, smashing against the glass cabinet doors, giving the impression that the entire house had just been picked up, shaken, and set back down; these contents not having yet settled back into place, suspended for the moment, against gravitational law.

"This House Is Not A Home" cleverly played with and questioned notions of home and family life, expectations of place and permanence. The artworks in this finely curated exhibit played off against each other and the place in which they resided, opening up possibilities of interpretation and meaning. Visit southsidehub.org for more information, and keep an eye out for future projects in this lively space.

Southside Hub Of Production, a local cultural center in Hyde Park, Chicago.

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