Thursday, May 10, 2012

Houses of Life and Loss: Schneider & Secor Show Us How to Mourn

Dean Liscum

The older I get, the more I believe in Jungian synchronicity (or at least doubt it less). In April, two Houston artists created installations to honor recently deceased parents. The installations are unique, yet similar. They pay tribute to parents who have passed on. They incorporate their parents belongings into the works of art. They are in houses. The works are objects of grief and also products of the grieving ritual. And, they are by artists  Beth Secor and Carrie Schneider, whose last names begins with "S." (I know. At some point even synchronicity gets absurd.)

As part of Project Row Houses: Round 36, Beth Secor created Blueprint for Heaven. The work is a collaborative piece that combines both her and her father's versions of Heaven. As she explained it to Project Row Houses...   
“For my row house, which I call Blueprint for Heaven, I have combined a corner of my father’s earthly heaven with my own. The majority of the materials I have used in this installation, including the model airplane blue prints and the model airplanes, I found in my dad’s workroom after he died.”

from Project Row Houses' exhibit page
Secor's work inhabits and transforms the space. These houses have been many things to many artists but here and now it is all Secor's: the walls, the floors, the ceiling, and the space between. Every part of the house is a part of their heaven, Secor's and her father's.  

The first thing that catches your eye when you enter are the model airplanes in the spaces in between. Secor's father loved model airplanes. Not the plastic pre-formed kits you buy in the toy section of your local mega store. These are the kinds of model airplanes that John Leinhard would wax poetic about. Airplanes that were conceived in the mind of the maker and built from scratch, not assembled from a neatly outfitted kit.

The planes are beautifully and painstakingly hand-crafted by Secor based on airplane blueprints that she found in her father's workshop after his death.

Standing under the model planes, gazing up at the fuselage, wing flaps, and landing gear, or ...

peering over them, running your eyes from the propeller over the engine cowling and cockpit to the stabilizer and rudder, you can see the meticulously detailed work, the love, that went into building these planes.

During her discussion of her work at Project Row Houses, Secor described how at one time in her youth her father spent a large sum of money on a model airplane, much to the chagrin of his wife. After constructing it, he then suspended his work proudly over their bed. In these aircraft dangling throughout the house, you can see the same amount of primacy and pride. The plane is both the sign and the signified. It is the metaphor and referent itself for life, for fulfillment.

Secor's entire installation is imbued with a cobalt oxide and white color scheme reminiscent of blue and white porcelain, which her father was fond of. On the aircraft, the color scheme gives them a sense of precious brittleness.  They are suspended with the same precariousness that is captured in the tight lipped, wide-eyed grimace on your childless great aunt's face as the 5-year old you buzzed your lips together to simulate an engine and flew one of her porcelain angels over her couch, mimicking a F-16 coming in for an attack, while your mother sat nonchalantly silent with the calm of a woman who had a room full of broken, divine figurines.

The extension of the color scheme to the entire house, applying it to the floors and walls, gives it an ethereal feel.

Secor also mentioned how abrupt the mourning process of her father was expected to be. He died. They made arrangements. They had the funeral, and that was basically it. Secor wanted and needed more to help her process the relationship with her father and its physical end. The creation of the "exhibit" becames a ritual for mourning.

The walls are covered with her father's airplane designs and porcelain patterns.

Interspersed among the detailed blueprint drawings and pragmatically instructive labels and notes, Secor inserts revelations...
Rudder & Finspar \ We fought \ constantly until I was 30. \ Only then did \ we become \ allies and friends.
and memories...
I was in my sister's room reading.  \ I must have been 17. The air conditioner \ was on full blast. The radio was on it was about midnight. \ I heard a moaning sound, which I mistook for the sound of my \ mother making herself throw up so as to relieve the pain of \ her migraine. No Beth, guess again.

and regrets...
this is about \ the moment I \ cried in front \ of the \ ladies \ from the \ corcoran
and annoyances.
It annoyed \ me when he \ complained \ about how \ much toilet \  paper my \ mother \ used

A cairn of river stones sits at one end of the house. Whether it's a metaphor for her father or for their father-daughter encounters or his psychological and emotional presence in Secor's life, it is something that must be acknowledged, navigated around and heeded as one traverses this particular heaven and reads the blueprints on the walls.

The creation or recreation of the blueprints and the planes and her memories is an empathetic action. It is a labor of love, part ritual and part homage. For the hours and hours Secor must have spent creating this installation, it serves as a meditation on them: her father and his loves, her relationship with him, and the pure pleasure they shared from the joy of creating something with their own hands.

Like Beth Secor's homage, Carrie Schneider's tribute installation organically grew out of the materials of her mother's life, her house. According to Schneider, Care House is an experiment in "...eliciting meaning and memory from a place." The place is a modest suburban house in Katy, Texas. The memories are of her mother, who lived in the house from the birth of her daughter, Carrie, until her death.

This installation isn't a typical of the form, but then Schneider's work is seldom typical. With her skill set, she could easily settle into a medium and become a medium-specific artist: a painter or sculptor or multi-media artist. Instead, she has chosen to employ and engage a panoply of mediums to convey her vision.

She contemplated creating this show in a gallery space, but it didn't feel right to her. The commercial and curatorial places were imperfect. For her, the place, the piece, and the process are inseparable. As conceived by Carrie, Care House is an undertaking. It involves a place to inhabit, objects to use, and a process to experience. So, through some clandestine creativity, Schneider has transformed a typical suburban house into a monument to her mother. (If the neighborhood association only knew!)

Schneider documented her efforts on her website on the project page, Care House. It is an experience in and of itself. However, it doesn't substitute for journeying through the house. Schneider's installation, whose subject is the memory of her mother's cancer and Schneider's caregiving, evolves into a performance piece as you navigate the house.

As any good fiction writer knows, when you want to communicate a concept or evoke an emotion or instill an idea, show don't tell. Schneider knows. Schneider shows by making it an experience.

The piece is designed to be experienced alone or in pairs. You make a reservation. As designed, you begin at the backdoor, entering the secret code into the realty lockbox and extracting the key. Walking through the threshold, you enter the informal dining room\breakfast nook. At first glance, it's like several other hundred thousand breakfast nooks with wall paper of indeterminate aesthetic goals and plenty of pastel colors. Upon closer inspections, you see pictures of domestic scenes from the Schneiders embedded in the wallpaper.

In the family room, a large TV continuously plays home videos.

In a recessed set of shelves beside the TV, Cast is displayed. It consists of plaster casts made by participants\volunteers who wanted to capture a gesture or otherwise relational position of bodies (hands, mouths, eyes) in a giving or receiving posture. The piece invites others to explore, communicate, and preserve this physical language of giving and receiving and the meaning and the energy that passes between individuals in these roles.

On the mantel, a digital frame loops through close-up photos of stains in the house on carpets, ceilings, bath tubs, etc. The tight framing gives them both an abstract quality and an adventurous one as you navigate the house and try to identify or recall the stain's photo in the montage.

From the family room I crossed through the entrance and into a dining room or parlor. Positioned in the window of the room is a dress stand wearing a paper garment made of Schneider's mother's documents and other mementos. The piece is called nightgown and it glows with a certain charm and charisma even in the middle of the day in bright sunlight giving a positive sense of Schneider's mothers presence.

In a hall bathroom, all of her mother's medications are laid out along with notes of instruction and notes of love and well-wishing. It's an altar not too the pharmaceutical industry or our advancements in oncological treatments, but to the regimen and rigorousness a patient must endure. The reality of 21st century living is that care becomes largely technological-chemical,

but the arrangement shows the importance of the personal from not only friends and family but also from the team of doctors and nurses.

The master bedroom contains Care. This piece is a video installation in which Schneider video tapes herself in the roles of both the care giver and care receiver and then splices the clips together. It has her, assuming the postures and positions of her mother and herself, both re-enacting her and her mother's pasts and dually inhabiting the giver-receiver relationship.

She repeats this re-enactment, this habitation through out the house. One instance is in a ritualized bathing scene in the master bathroom.

Other instances of re-enactment and habitation constitute the piece entitled Dress. In this one, Schneider uses a double-projection technique. In the first projection, she projects pictures of her mother on to the wall. She then "steps into" the pictures and attempts to mimic her mother's pose. This act is one of embodiment in which she virtually "wears" her mother's dresses, which were discarded before Schneider could save them. The second projection is of a recording of her "trying on the dresses" projected onto a mirror in her mother's bath room.

The location and the act of virtual embodiment give these pieces a concentrated sense of intimacy and awkwardness. To me as an observer, they feel as if you are in the half lit room with your own mother, who is sliding her loose, freckled, naked flesh into a caftan you gave her 20 years ago or her favorite summer dress. To Schneider, I imagine they close the gap between mother and daughter inserted by death and reunite her with her mother through a sort of physical synchronicity.  

The final part of the installation is in the backyard. It is the site of Windchime Ritual, consists of a dozen or so wind chimes and sounds exactly as you'd imagine: serene in the suburbs amid the distant sounds of lawn equipment and traffic.

Care House is something of a reclamation of and a celebration of Schneider's mother. For the viewer, the individual pieces are exercises in intimacy and mourning. They are examples of a means by which art (a.k.a. imagination) can be used to personalize the ritual of mourning, to demonstrate the way art can be used to remember and to heal.

Blueprint for Heaven and Care House aren't about style or technique or career advancement or continued vision. They're also not about what they constitutes them: airplanes or paper dresses or blue prints or video performances or even heaven. They are about process. They are about problem solving: how does one proceed with life when someone who has given you life no longer exists? They are about survival. Both Secor and Schneider have embarked on very personal journeys on how to mourn in a cultural that doesn't have time for death. They've done it individually but publicly. Thankfully, they have been kind enough to leave markers along the way in the form of these installations and their artifacts. Not so that we can reproduce their journeys or imitate their invented rituals, but so that we can give ourselves permission to discover our own.


1 comment:

  1. Beth Secor sent me two clarifications:

    "... My dad made the planes. If I had made them, they would look like two sticks tied together I am afraid. I did paint the patterns on them, and the patterns were modeled after patterns I found on the various blue and white pottery I began collecting after my father died."