Memories are strange, lurking things, hiding in the dark until something -- an image, an object, a sound, a smell -- flips a switch to briefly illuminate them. But while our memories may seem profound to us, they don't always have the same significance for others. Try watching somebody else's home movies. A little goes a looooong way.
Nevertheless, Elena Lopez-Poirot, who uses old family photos, among other materials, in "Handle with Care," leaves you wanting more. The key to the success of her work is that rather than illustrating personal specifics, she manages to evoke the way memory feels.
Six small wooden houses hanging on the wall look like tall, narrow birdhouses with rectangular doorways. The exteriors are collaged with black-and-white photos overpainted with colored washes. Each has a button you can press that triggers interior wonders.
Hold the button of 1931 Constance Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (all works 2004) and you hear the sounds of macaws and monkeys. A light comes on in the house to reveal a tiny wooden bed with a pillow and plaid bedspread, set in the midst of a jungle. Trees and foliage surround the bed and intermingle with the clothes in the open drawers of a dresser. It's a banal domestic environment gone lush and exotic -- and claustrophobically overgrown.
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When you hit the switch of 1927 Constance Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, birds begin to chirp. Inside is a snow-covered dining room with a tiny table, sawed in half and growing out of the wall. A chair is pushed up against it, and a blanket of snow covers everything, including the newspaper. A scene of trees and snowy landscape is painted on the interior walls, and the room is crowded with twigs that look like bare tree trunks. A dinky, old-fashioned blue-enamel coffee pot rests on a stump. There's a salty smell to the room; Lopez-Poirot used borax for the snow, an appropriately vintage material. Squinting into the little doorway, you feel the calm quiet after a snowfall, but it's a bittersweet scene, undercut with a sense of abandonment.
1925 Constance Avenue houses a desert scene with an easy chair and a book resting on a boulder end table, accompanied by the howls of coyotes. 1929 Constance Avenue is set to the sounds of seagulls. The walls are painted to look like water; the floor is covered with sand and tiny shells; a broom leans in a corner; and canned goods levitate on a shelf in the aquatic expanse. Down the street at 1923 Constance Avenue,you hear gurgling water and croaking frogs. A rock grotto contains a sink with miniature brass faucets and a toilet bowl filled with orange koi. Looking into these strange little worlds makes you wish you were small enough to crawl inside.
After the emotional impact of the houses, it's tough for other works in the show to compete. Among the most successful is a series of eggshells hung on the walls and papered with copies of vintage photos. On one, a boy proudly holds a fish; on another, a crowd of women in white graduation caps and gowns stands under a Coca-Cola sign. The faded black-and-white tones of the photos and the fragility of the eggshells are conceptually complementary, but they still don't engage you like the environments do.
Lopez-Poirot has a talent for crafting amazing little objects, but that kind of skill can easily slip into cutesiness. In Global Warming I -- VI, miniature clothes are made out of maps. Charming, well-made one-liners, they dangle from itsy-bitsy hangers, each enclosed by a sphere of wires that look like latitude and longitude lines.
Embracing Persephone is problematic as well. Here Lopez-Poirot has crafted flowers from book pages and wax, strung them on monofilament and cascaded them from an open book. She might get away with the flowers, but the book is too loaded a symbol -- it makes everything overly neat and contained. Here, the artist has strayed too far into the land of craftsy.
In another work, "leaves" dangle from fishing line stretched between circular sections of tree trunks on the floor and ceiling. The leaves have brown paper on one side and fragments of family photos on the other. (The unforgivably punny title of the work is Family Tree.) While the cascading images are effective, they feel constricted by their columnar "tree" forms. Something about leaves makes you want them messier and more expansive.
But things get back on track in the life-size installation Otra Jornada (Another Journey). Entering through a black curtain, you walk into a room dense with foliage. The ground is covered with leaves that crunch when you step on them. You hear an old-fashioned telephone ringing from far away and a muffled woman's voice saying "Hello?" You pass a black rotary phone resting on a doily-covered shelf. At the end of the overgrown hall is a chair next to a tiny table with a red-shaded lamp, a pair of glasses and a book on gardening. Little illuminated houses like the ones in the Constance Avenue series hang on the wall and hide inside the space. One contains twin beds and a crucifix -- it's a memory within a memory.
Rounding the corner, you pass blinds hanging behind a softly billowing curtain and feel the breeze of a fan. Ahead, you hear trickling water; it runs from a vine-covered faucet and into a basin. The phone rings again, and you feel like you're eavesdropping on the past. As you move on, you hear birds and smell the earthy damp of the leaves. The Christmas lights that dot the ceiling convince you they're stars. The floor changes from soft and leafy to rocky to sandy. In the leaves at the end of the beachy expanse hangs a bathrobe, shed by someone who left the intimate space and plunged into the unknown.
Lopez-Poirot really shines with her environments; these are the works that do something to the viewer, triggering memories and associations. It is in the confines of her tiny vignettes and draped interiors that Lopez-Poirot lets herself go, pushing past "nice" and into powerful.
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