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All in a Row

Every house has a story, but Project Row Houses has installations

One of the strengths of Project Row Houses' installation program is the row houses themselves. They aren't bland, white, neutral cubes. Shotgun shacks have a rich social history; they carry the patina of age and record vernacular architecture. They become a platform for artists to explore ideas, and the most intriguing work of "Round 18" responds to the challenge.

All houses have stories, and Dolan Smith has turned his row house into a theater of pain that runs the gamut from tragedy to absurdity. Smith is into scars, both physical and psychic. He exhibited his personal collection at Aurora Picture Show in 2000, and today he runs the Museum of the Weird, where he maintains a permanent Scar Room. Here at Project Row Houses, the emotional and historic weight of the structure melds beautifully with his sensibility.

Smith has painted the walls a worn, rosy red that is both comforting and disturbing. The walls are lined with odd-sized pieces of wood, each containing a story. A stack of painted wood scraps and Sharpie markers allows visitors to contribute their own scar stories. A child's newly written scar story tells of a cousin throwing a brick at him; a stick-person illustration of the event is included. Another one on the wall is an elderly woman's tale of being locked under the kitchen counter by her stepmother for days at a time in 1908. Other anecdotes range from "Napalmed a wart" to "Burnt my hand trying to make art with a toaster oven" to "My mother threw a shoe at me for gambling." The hundreds of stories record pit bull attacks, bike accidents, alcoholic parents and a starkly tragic account of falling asleep in the back of a minivan and waking up paralyzed. It's powerful stuff, told in people's own words. Smith's scar project is a record of pain, sadness, humor, damage and resilience.

A plywood sign on the exterior of Robert Pruitt's house reads "People's Party Headquarters" and shows a drawing of a black panther. Pruitt's point of departure is an imagined Black Panther hideout moments before a police raid. The installation is rife with commemorative flashback nostalgia, both political and stylistic. A large chipped plaster panther greets you at the door. On the opposite wall, a charcoal drawing of a woman with an Angela Davis Afro points a handgun at you. Next to her a man crouches behind an overturned '70s sofa, and another seems to peer behind a window draped with a bed sheet. A mirror on the back wall reflects another figure drawn on the central chimney. The windows are covered with tinfoil, and at the front of the house a mattress has been propped up as a barricade. Cans of government food aid tomatoes are stacked on a box in the corner. Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life is tacked to the wall, as is a poster commemorating the death of Carl Hampton, organizer of Houston's Panther-modeled People's Party II.

Poverty and oppression are inextricably intertwined with the history of the shotgun house and with protest movements, both nonviolent and violent. Pruitt clearly has a pop romance with the blaxploitation-flick aesthetic and the hip, funky, aggressive world of the '70s. But more than just an affection for a style, there's a longing for the active political engagement of the '60s and '70s. Armed struggle is a pretty tough sell, but the essential goals of the revolution are compelling. A chalkboard on a side wall gives an abbreviated list of the Panther ten-point plan, which included full employment, decent housing, decent education and free health care. The frightening thing is that these ideas have been so marginalized from popular political debate that they seem as dated as the sculptured shag carpet in Pruitt's installation.

A Barbie pink runner leads the way into Quashelle Curtis's Black Barbie Premiere Collection. Next to the porch is a human-sized pink plywood box with Barbie's name written in her signature white script. The bottom panel is broken out -- accidentally, I think, but it adds to the impression that some giant child has ripped her new toy out of the box. But instead of getting the Barbie Dream House, she got a shotgun shack, like some metaphor for manufactured consumer expectation versus harsh reality.

Barbie was famously based on a German adults-only doll named Lillie. Mattel told the designer, Jack Ryan, a Pentagon engineer who had been briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, to make her look less like a "German streetwalker." Although the only slightly less hooker-esque Barbie debuted in 1959, the first black Barbie didn't come out until 1980, but Barbie did get a black friend named Christy in 1968.

Inside the row house are another Barbie box and four life-sized figures in various outfits from the "Urban Collection." One has braids, wears her sunglasses on her head, sports a fur vest and carries a Burberry shopping bag. Another sits casually in a director's chair in tie-dyed pants and a shiny camisole. The figures seem to have been made over a period of time: The first has a more doll-like face, while another in jeans and a baseball cap seems eerily lifelike, an effect enhanced by the artist's spooky use of prosthetic eyes.

Ultimately, however, the piece feels like it's in conceptual transition. Curtis seems to be moving more toward figurative sculpture and away from the Barbie spoof. She needs to either ratchet up the consumer satire and push the issue of real woman versus the Barbie caricature, or go the other direction and pursue a clinical post-Duane Hanson kind of naturalism.

Casting architectural fragments like death masks, Darryl Lauster creates haunting objects out of his fascination with the products of craftsmen. A small stack of sandblasted acrylic resin bricks sits at the base of the row house chimney. A beautifully worked resin heating grate rests on the rough wood floor, giving the house an amenity that it never had. Within the house, Lauster has built a partial framework for a house out of translucent acrylic panels. A frosty resin shutter leans against a wall under a window outside the plastic structure. The shutter has a handmade, tactile surface, but the wall is flat and manufactured.

There's a material disjunction between the cast resin objects and the manufactured house components. Lauster is trying to continue the translucent aesthetic of the resin in the mock-up house, but this stuff feels too shiny and new, like it's better suited to a trade show display. The construction elements would have been really great had they been cast in resin and sandblasted -- but alas, that's too obsessive even for Lauster.

To put the installation into context, Lauster is known for building furniture and crafting decorative objects according to photos and measurements from museum collections, re-creating them only to cast them. More of his work is on view at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery. The standout is a sandblasted resin trestle table, originally crafted in the 1890s. Icy and solid, it is a tremendously tactile object. The furniture's power is such that Hiram Butler has acquired two of Lauster's tables, prompting gallery partner Devin Borden to admonish, "Hiram, you're a dealer, not a user." Lauster is really on to something with this work. But while the objects are compelling on their own, site-specific display, like at Project Row Houses, holds a wealth of new potential.

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