Review: Disconnects echo in ‘Homeward Bound’

Review by Howard Halle

Rachael Le Goubin | Staff Photographer
The first floor of the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center is devoted to the exhibition “Homeward Bound: An American Pictoral,” which runs through Thursday.

Home is where the heart is, as the old saying goes, but in the works by the six artists currently on view at the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center, home and heart appear to coexist warily, like estranged spouses under the same roof. Depicted are views of various buildings, structures and cities bereft of inhabitants like empty stage sets waiting for actors who never show up.

As the first part of show’s title suggests, “Homeward Bound: An American Pictorial” evokes a journey of return, one described as a circle where beginning and end don’t connect.

Organized by director of galleries Judy Barie, “Homeward Bound” skews heavily toward paintings, with a smaller selection of sculptures provided by two artists, Bebe Alexander and Jason Forck.

Alexander creates ceramic objects resembling folk art models of grain elevators, bins and hoppers. They’re finished in glazes similar to the ones found on those old stoneware jugs that frequently crop up on “Antiques Roadshow.” Her items, diminutive without being cute, are functionally shaped into cups and vases like souvenirs of a way of life that have seen better days. The same echoes of a faded agricultural idyll reverberate through Forck’s sculptures made of glass, metal and wood. Most of them feature a barn rendered as mute and minimal as a Monopoly house — and perhaps, just as leveraged. One spectral relief in white glass emerges in isometric projection from a charred-wood plaque, compressing the abandonment of countless farmsteads along the interstate into a study on perspective.

The paintings taking up the bulk of the show range over a wider spectrum of references that proceeds from the specific to the general. Seth Clark, for example, focuses on ruins from the present, picturing buildings and details of walls left wrecked and ravaged by disaster or neglect. Exposed, collapsing frameworks and sagging expanses of drywall mark the spots on a map that chart the emotional fallout from such places as post-Katrina New Orleans or post-crash Detroit.

In her series of small canvases, Sarah Williams seems to take a page from 17th-century Dutch painting, both in the softened precisionism of her style, and in the way she wrestles the wider world down to domestic scale. As in Forck’s work, the central motif here is a simplified edifice — a modest clapboard house — representing a larger state of anomie. Judging by the barren branches and strings of colored lights, Williams has set her scenes on or around Christmas, just as dusk settles into night. Rather than welcoming beacons of holiday cheer, however, these houses seem as cold and barren as a doused hearth. Paradoxically, the presence of a lit window here and there only heightens the sense of estrangement, especially in a couple of views where the glow emanating from TV sets cast greenish blobs on the window panes, like poltergeists haunting the compositions.

A similar air of dread pervades Paul Rouphail’s two largest paintings, in which high-rise towers huddle under a permanently setting sun. Once again, the lights have been left on to signal absence instead of presence, this time within a barren urban vista. Each scene, though, contains the odd, surreal detail of an isolated cutout billboard. One of these shows the Marlboro Man looming over a darkened skyline as he lights a cigarette. It’s a jarring sight, and the reason it’s there isn’t entirely clear; perhaps it’s meant as a symbol of the way the global economy enforces the same pop-cultural anonymity from one country to the next.

While all of these works concentrate on fixed places in one fashion or the next, Melissa Kuntz’s paintings evoke the disquieting effects of transience as seen through vertiginous aerial views of jumbo jets and other aircraft, criss-crossing over airports, highway interchanges and fairgrounds. They seem oblivious to each other, directed by a god of air traffic control who isn’t paying attention. They leave you literally hanging in the air.

Kuntz’s images also seem to perch you atop an impossibly high wire, like a member of Olympian circus troupe. And this precarious balancing act points to the show’s other theme as contained by the second half of its title: “An American Pictorial.”

All nationalities are arguably constructs — tribal affiliations constrained within boundaries that are arbitrarily drawn and prone to unraveling (as is indeed the case in today’s Iraq). But no identity is as artificial as “American,” which is scarcely an identity at all; it is rather, an existential state. Americans are who they are by virtue of a voyage of amnesia that leaves behind the past or reinvents it altogether. Each American, in other words, is work of fiction — an unreliably narrated picaresque, more often than not. We are are compelled to roam, in our own minds if not in fact, by the siren call of liberty, which is as much of a curse as it is a blessing as we wander from one destination to the next. Our long strange trip is an orbit, bringing us back to ourselves. But all too often, when we knock on the door, nobody is home.

Howard Halle is editor-at-large at Time Out New York.