09. Nalina Moses Reviews Heather Rowe: “Trouble Everyday”

Perhaps no architectural form is as mythologically loaded as the single-family house. The image of a suburban house, with its pitched roof, chimney, and double-hung windows, conjures instantly a complex set of social, cultural and sexual mores.

Heather Rowe’s installation “Trouble Everyday” at D’Amelio Terras looks cunningly at both physical and emotional constructions of “house.” The artist has taken the unpretty, workaday materials of typical residential construction (wood studs, plywood, gypsum wall board, carpet, linoleum, wallpaper, mirror, and trim) and configured an uneasy, enigmatic spectacle.

The installation is a series of compressed, foot-high vignettes contained between plywood floor and ceiling assemblies. These narrow, shard-shaped constructions float above the floor at eye level. They aren’t literally representational, like the rooms in a doll-house, but they invite viewing; they’re open on all sides, and partitioned with pieces of mirror and papered drywall that shape spaces within. Each piece is raised on slender, metal legs, some of which are inches shorter than the others and shimmed with stacks of clear glass. Other white wooden legs rise from the top of the vignettes and hover in the air, mirroring the metal ones visually.

The vignettes are arrayed to fill the entire space of the gallery. Viewers navigate carefully between them, careful not to bump into their pointed corners or brush up against their legs. A viewer can’t peer into one vignette for too long, however, before a bit of mirror directs her gaze somewhere behind or off to one side. In addition to this optical stuttering the viewer is unnerved by the installation’s physical instability. The pieces have a high center of gravity and aren’t fixed to the ground; they feel as if they could tip over at any moment.

Offering cross-sectional views of normally unseen building materials like plywood and carpet underlayment, the installation evokes Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Splitting” (1974), a single-family house in Englewood, New Jersey that the artist cut in two with a chainsaw. Matta-Clark’s piece was a concise, artful act of destruction, an attack to physical and spiritual values, executed with the same physical bravado that surrounds building construction and demolition. Although Rowe employs raw construction materials, her pieces feel less related to construction practices than to fine arts traditions of assemblage and collage. A viewer must look hard to find welds, nails, screws and adhesives in them; they’ve been put together with considerable care. There’s none of the manliness or messiness that permeate the culture of construction and demolition, and that frame Matta-Clark’s action.

While its physical scale and materiality are architectural, “Trouble Everyday” evokes an intimate, inward experience rather than an exterior spatial one. In a previous installation at D’Amelio Terras, “On Returning,” Rowe reconstructed parts of a house by modern architect Paul Rudolph from memory. For that piece she employed many of the same materials (carpet, mirror, gypsum wall board), but mimicked Rudolph’s sculpturally assertive modernist vocabulary. That reconstruction embodied a tectonic memory of a house, an impersonal and historical one. “Trouble Everyday,” which is similar in size and materials, doesn’t concern itself with architectural aesthetics so much as notions of personal inhabitation. One vignette lined with linoleum tile suggests dinner in a family kitchen, and another with bits of a decorative ceiling moulding suggests a gathering in a formal living room. The pieces conjure the life within a house without recreating its architecture.

In its delicacy and intimacy, “Trouble Everyday” is similar in spirit to Do Ho Suh’s life-size translucent nylon and wire reconstructions of homes. Both artists present a domestic architecture that’s been depleted physically and enriched emotionally. Seeing Suh’s “The Perfect Home II” (2003), a reconstruction of one small house’s interior rooms, is like entering someone else’s childhood home and their personal history. The sculpture’s slight, sagging elements are a potent representation of memory, with its distortions, diminution, and fragility.

Rowe’s piece lacks the dimensional and spatial fidelity of Suh’s work. A viewer can’t imagine herself bodily within the space of the vignettes, or find an authoritative personal narrative connecting them. And Rowe’s work has none of Suh’s nostalgic, documentary sensibility. The vignettes are architectural scraps, and while the materials they’re made from offer rich associations, they don’t represent living spaces.

Although the shard-like forms of the vignettes evoke the deconstructivist aesthetic of architects like Zaha Hadid, their materials give them a humble, low-tech feeling. In fact these vignettes, in their lack of an overarching structure and image, might be an inverse of architecture. As in Joel Shapiro’s more recent sculptures, the individual elements do not congeal in a form that responds to physical and pictorial logic. The pieces in “Was Blue” (2010), for example, are suspended by thin metal wires and seem to be flying in different directions, to be moving toward dissolution. Similarly, the vignettes in “Trouble Everyday” have no perceivable order or center, and are precariously balanced. There’s no symmetry or structural logic in the design of the metal legs beneath them, and no purpose at all to the white legs above them.

As the title of the installation suggests, there is no domestic tranquility here. The pointed corners of the vignettes, their inherent physical instability, and the slices of mirror floating within them, all suggest danger. They offer glimpses into another, interior landscape, one shaped by spatial omissions and repressions, that reveals itself only in fearful glimpses. The viewer moves aimlessly through the piece searching for a complete narrative, something to tie all the elements together, but that always seems out of reach.

It’s this ephemerality that’s the great strength of the piece. While Rowe has whittled the house down to its raw physical stuff and shaped it into an menacing physical landscape, she’s also captured a palpable sense of personal mystery, of the dream, desire and dread at the heart of domesticity, that is, at the heart of everyday life. She’s exposed the house, a potent architecture and mythology, as a phenomenon that’s enticing, flickering, and about to fail.

525 West 22nd Street
May 8 – June 19