On the House

Project Row Houses has always been as much about community as art, so it's not surprising that the idea of community should run through most of its "Round 20 Artist Installations." For its decade-long existence, PRH has used art to advocate for Third Ward residents, working to reclaim and revitalize the neighborhood -- and helping to build the pride of place that's encouraged residents to resist developers who've tried to move in. All over the Third Ward, you can see signs warning that "The Third Ward is our home and it's not for sale."

Six installations make up the current round, counting an ongoing workshop that's making mosaic-covered benches for the neighborhood (they're starting out with just four, but the plans are ambitious). The other five installations are by artists both local and national.

And sometimes both, as is the case in Fieldworks: Seed House, a collaborative installation by Los Angeles artists Jane Jenny and Karen Atkinson and Houston-based architect Nancy Ganucheau. Seed House is part of a larger project that's been three years in the making, an exhibition and landscaping plan for PRH and the neighborhood. The installation serves as something of a progress report, with a neighborhood model, a Big Book of Ideas, books hanging from the ceiling, copies of a field guide to the neighborhood and, in one corner, a domestic arrangement of chairs and tables. Folksy sayings about sowing and reaping adorn wooden fruit piled in a bowl on a table and a symbolic "garden" in between the Big Book of Ideas and the domestic corner -- that is, between planning and fruition. If some of Seed House seems a bit cutesy, it still effectively makes the case that a community will grow with planning and nurturing, not by letting developers do whatever the hell they want and hoping for the best.

The argument for effort continues in Dominique Moody's Sweat Equity: In Search of Mother Home. The installation is dominated by bottles in different shapes and colors, each half-full of a clear liquid, lining the windows and set on a small table by the door (where cards invite you to tell your own story about hard work paying off). A line of chairs winds around the space, ending at a tall, circular table surmounted by two carved-wood profiles of feminine figures, their arms extended forward. This area can only be considered a shrine to the installation's driving concept: The space between the figures contains more bottles, scraps of words and collages of photos, many faded, showing people remodeling houses. Nearby stands a monument, as it were, to sweat equity: a model of a house that's empty within, with all the activity happening on the outside in more photographs of remodeling and building. The photos are framed under a construction grid, and twigs support the porch and extend out from under the house, suggesting organic processes at work.

And, after work, play. Jesse Lott and Joe Cardella's Domino Shack represents a social gathering place, like the barbershop or the beauty salon. There's a table with dominoes and a (nonspecific) antiwar poster on the back wall, standing in for the political talk that would likely animate the game. A smaller table is covered with "children's" drawings (they're just a little too polished, but you know what's being encouraged) and, scattered around the space, flyers advertising ART/LIFE, Cardella's limited-edition monthly publication. This last element strikes a discordant note: With its $50 single-issue price, it's not certain which habitués of the Domino Shack would be in the market for the publication. The magazine's name may be a nod to PRH's overall mission, but that hasn't been made clear enough. The installation has a haphazard feel to it, like something's missing.

Manuel Pellicer and Wes Sandel address a larger sense of community with their examination of the social and political histories of black Mexicans. Their 11-minute video and photo-and-text placards trace the "invisibility" of Mexicans of African ancestry, their "disappearance" into the mestizo mix, the official denial of African-Mexican heritage and its political ramifications. While there's a palpable tension between the apolitical photographs of people of African descent going about their daily lives and the politicized text of the signs (the juxtaposition between words and images is even more pronounced on the video), there's a school project/Discovery Channel aspect to the enterprise that's a little less than satisfying.

The final two installations, Brian Wesley Heiss's Insidewalk and Howard Hilliard's Pinhole Project, are less overtly about community and, perhaps because of that lack of self-consciousness, more successful as art installations. Heiss has taken orange reflective construction barrier and detour signs, cut them to the dimensions of the house's original wallboards, and mixed and matched them to cover part of the house's interior, including the windows. As a result, the room is dark; you "activate" the signs with the beam of a flashlight. With their warnings and directions jumbled, the signs speak to the disruption of community and the difficulty of navigating change.

Hilliard, meanwhile, has created a camera obscura in the front room of his house (the only one with the original interior walls intact) by boarding up the windows save for a small hole two to three inches in diameter. The street outside, and the small bush in front of the house, project through this hole in reverse on the opposite wall. If you ever wondered what it would be like to stand inside a camera or behind your eyeball, here's your chance.

The artist Robert Rauschenberg once stated that he wanted to inhabit the gap between art and life, and Project Row Houses represents perhaps the most complete realization of such an ideal. If there is a drawback to PRH, it's that too frequently the participating artists get locked into the concept of "house." That, of course, is not the Project's fault. It's up to the artists to transform -- and inform -- the space, just as Project Row Houses has transformed and informed its community.

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John Devine