Inside an abandoned house in Providence, R.I., with peeling wallpaper and a precariously positioned rusty mantelpiece, Francesca Woodman poses in a crouching position, almost molding with the house itself. Light shines through the window, illuminating Woodman’s blurred and ambiguous outline in her 1976 gelatin silver print photograph, “House #4,” as part of her “House” series. “House” is currently on display at the Addison Gallery of American Art as part of the new exhibit “Walls and Beams, Rooms and Dreams: Images of Home.”
Curated by Allison Kemmerer, Curator of post-1950 Art and of Photography, and Susan Faxon, Associate Director and Curator of pre-1950 Art, “Walls and Beams, Rooms and Dreams” spans a total of four rooms at the Addison. The historic and contemporary paintings, prints, photographs and drawings from the Addison’s permanent collection revolve around the themes of home and house, exploring the different types of dwellings that humans have constructed for themselves, the many ways in which those spaces have been inhabited and the wide range of emotions attached to them.
Kemmerer said, “I want people to realize what a powerful symbol home is and how it has many different meanings – not just one – and depending on the person, it can be a good thing, a bad thing or both. Also, how it is such a springboard for creative art and so many artists have dealt with the idea of home in different ways.”
The two rooms on the left of the exhibition focus more on the structural part of what it means to be in a home or a house. The right two rooms display images that deal with how people have lived in various ways or during different times.
In one of the left rooms, a large doll house called “The Kaleidoscope House” sits with sliding transparent color walls and small-scale modern furniture. It was designed and built by Laurie Simmons, a photographer, and Peter Wheelwright, an architect, in 2000. The modernist architectural house also contains realistic action figures of the artist, architect and family. As the interchangeable exterior walls of the dollhouse slide open and overlap one another, their colors change in hue and value. The house features paintings, photographs and sculpture by Peter Halley, Carroll Dunham ’67, Laurie Simmons, Cindy Sherman, Mel Kendrick ’67 and others.
Faxon said, “This is a commercially produced dollhouse, designed by Laurie Simmons and her colleague, Peter Wheelwright. We actually ordered it and had it sent. It is, in fact, a dollhouse with furnishings and doors that can open. It is just a wonderful piece and contemporary architecture… It is really fun and so great. We put it in this exhibition because it is an interesting way of thinking about a house and also because it has a sort of relationship with the photographs and things that were in the background.”
In his 1997 acrylic and collage piece on canvas banner, “Souvenir II,” Kerry James Marshall prominently features commemorative paintings of “The Holy Trinity of the Civil Rights Movements,” including portraits of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. The portraits are set in the living room of the artist’s great-aunt’s sister and her husband: Bertha Mae and Clifford Clark. In the orderly, detailed living room, a middle-aged African American woman is holding a vase of flowers while wearing a simple black and blue dress adorned with angel wings of glitter.
Kemmerer said, “We specifically put this artwork here, not just because it is big, but it is really opposite all these images of women in the house, and I feel like these images all sort of portray the imprisonment in the house and the separation from the real world… The figures on top are all civil rights activists who were killed doing what they were doing or passed away. So it is just a very different image of women and home and sort of what that means and for her, it feels like it is a place of nourishment and strength.”
In “The Family,” an oil on canvas painted by George H. Story in 1872, affluent Boston banker Abner Benyon poses with his wife and eight children in his fashionably furnished residence in Newton, Mass. Dressed in formal suits and silken white dresses, they gather around a linen-draped dining table embellished with several bouquets, with a figured carpet on the floor and a portrait of their deceased child over an ornate marble mantel.
Faxon said, “[‘The Family,’ ‘Preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner’ and ‘The Departure’] here are sort of the centerpiece for presenting this idea of different families in different settings and how they might be depicted. I’ve always been interested in this painting because it is so detailed. The interior is so ornate… All of it is filled with information about the pretensions of this family all captured. For me, it is a pretty interesting painting and particularly with the two that flank it.”
“Walls and Beams, Rooms and Dreams: Images of Home” will be on view in the Addison until July 31.