As former Press staff writer Shaila Dewan noted in these pages eight years ago, installations at Project Row Houses are tough to critique. Founder Rick Lowe has said he's more concerned with what art does than what it is, and PRH's curators don't seem to care much about blowing the doors off the artistic establishment; what they're more concerned with is blowing the minds of the surrounding community, giving those folks a leg up, a way out, a reason to return. "But if you can't separate the art from the project's social mission, then it's easy to confuse a critique of the art with criticism of the project," wrote Dewan in her review of "Round Six" ("Site, or Sight?" September 4, 1997). She was a fan of Lowe's project; she just thought some of its offerings sucked.
But here we are, eight years and 17 rounds later, and the quandary remains: How exactly are we supposed to think about the installations at Project Row Houses? Is it fair to critique the works in "Round 23" the same way we would those in a gallery, even though these installations aren't necessarily targeted to the artistic elite?
I'm inclined to say yes, especially since many of the current offerings were created by established artists. But that doesn't mean you can disregard the site of these works. Take Michael Golden's installation: The artist has hung hundreds (maybe thousands) of keys inside one row house, covering an entire wall with the multicolored bits of metal. More keys dangle from other walls, placed there by visitors who have written their hopes and secrets on tags attached to them. The visual effect is appealing enough, but the accompanying literature drips more cheese than a plate of soggy nachos. "This installation explores the key as a metaphor to unlocking dreams and locking up secrets," it begins, and the artist stops just short of offering the key to his heart. If this project were in a museum, it probably would upset the stomachs of even the most lactose-tolerant, but at PRH it somehow works, especially when you see how many people have participated. Peace is a common wish of those who've written on the blank tags, as is a cure for disease. But one wiseass probably said it best: "I wish people would be more honest about what they're wishing for."
Jimmy Kuehnle has been getting a lot of buzz lately with his art bikes, crazy, rolling contraptions that either paint or film while he pedals, but his installation at PRH is a little more subdued. The artist has set up 30 televisions in his space, all stacked up and strewn about at odd angles. Tiny cameras are placed around the house, filming visitors and feeding the TVs. The trick is that the televisions are set up so you can never see yourself; every time you get within view of a monitor, you've just walked out of range of its corresponding camera. It's the video equivalent of spinning around really fast in front of the mirror, trying in vain to see the back of your head. (Or am I the only one who did that as a kid?) The clever installation does make a statement about how we're monitored all the time without knowing it, but it's straightforward; there's little room for nuance in the confines of this house. Then again, it's easy to imagine how much fun could be had in there by the kids of the single mothers staying in the row houses across the courtyard.
Jo Ann Fleischhauer has placed waxy-looking houses upside down on the ceiling of her room, and from these lit domiciles hang spools, their sharp tips dangling near eye level. I have no idea what's going on here, I must admit, and her accompanying literature offers no help, with passages such as "Head North. Further North. Northern Lights. Daylight hide. / Darkness run. 'Communal book of moonlight.' North Star. / Follow the Drinking Gourd. Big Dipper. Zigzag patterns of deception." Now either I'm totally missing the point, or the artist has taken a work that's not very interesting visually and tried to make it more profound with confusing exhibition notes. It'll just have to remain a mystery.
Kaneem Smith's installation, on the other hand, deals with the unknown in a palpable way. She's covered the floor of her house in dirt and gravel, and from the ceiling hangs what looks like a large curtain of burlap. But as you walk around the curtain, trying to see what's on the other side, you end up right back where you started; it's a closed loop, a clever trick. And it's easily the most interesting installation in this round. (Curiously enough, Dewan said basically the same thing about another of Smith's installations eight years ago.)
A critique of any of PRH's offerings must take into account the context of the work, but that doesn't mean we should let subpar offerings off the hook. Otherwise, praise of installations like Smith's would amount to nothing, and that'd be a downright shame.
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