Francis Cape’s The Other End of the Line
October 22 – November 21, 2010
The funny thing about mobile homes is that you see them parked more often than you see them on the move, which perversely makes it seem peculiar when you do see a mobile home being hauled along a highway. In New York, these trailers frequently serve as headquarters on construction sites, but rarely much else. So it was with anticipation of lively idiosyncrasy that I walked into a mobile home built in the early ’70s and recently retooled as an art gallery. It was nestled beneath the High Line, directly adjacent to the future residence—currently a construction site—of the Whitney Museum.
This boxy, off-white trailer with a pair of plastic deck chairs in its “yard” is Francis Cape’s The Other End of the Line, his first major public art installation in New York City. The project, commissioned by the High Line, is rooted in a multifaceted response to its home in the Meatpacking District. Like the High Line itself, Cape’s trailer was built for transportation before it was transformed into an aesthetic space. As a symbol, the trailer carries lower-class associations that are distinctly opposed to the sense of luxury and wealth one gets walking amongst the clubs, bistros, and vintage fashion outlets that have sprouted up in the area. The artwork inside the trailer, selected by Ian Berry, curator of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, continues the theme of responding to a specific locality: the artists are all from upstate, and it’s to their own living and working environments that their works refer. The trailer—which Cape found in Sullivan County, NY, where he lives—and the artworks in the exhibition have all been brought from upstate New York to The Other End of the [freight train’s] Line.
This is the most collaborative work Cape’s done to date, and perhaps the most rigorously conceptual. Cape, who is a professor of art at Marywood University, brought his students on board to treat the trailer’s exterior. The weather-beaten lawn ornaments and flowers, potted in a painted tire, are presumably to their credit, but more interesting are the ribbons they wove into the chain link fence that separates Cape’s project from the Whitney’s construction site. Using white, blue, and green ribbon, the students created the illusion of a white picket fence in front of an expanse of grass and sky. The weaving pattern embodies qualities of folk art, which is as unpretentious as the trailer itself. Conceptually, the fence in the fence echoes what’s going on inside the trailer: a group exhibition encapsulated by a solo exhibition.
What distinguishes this curatorial endeavor from Berry’s previous work is the domestic character of the trailer’s interior. Even though the space has been scrubbed clean, everywhere the patina of use is visible: scuffs on walls, water stains on the bowed ceiling, dings in the vents, rips in the carpets, cracks in the floor. As a contextual element, the domesticity endows the artworks with a slightly casual character and a certain sensuality—a kind of warmth—that is absent in the cold, sterilized presence of unsullied white walls. It also has an anthropomorphic effect. In the front room, Matt Harle’s “Untitled,” two basketball-sized orbs propped up on freestanding wooden legs, are covered with a form-fitting clear vinyl that immediately calls to mind protective furniture coverings. The orbs appear to be in a dialogue with one another, and as a result of their placement near Kenji Fujita’s “Untitled”—similarly orb-like and floor based—they seem like friends or neighbors over for a visit. Likewise, in the trailer’s back room, a freestanding sculpture by Nancy Shaver, “The MPR (multipurpose room): Homage to Bard MFA” is placed in front of Michael Oatman’s video piece; it looks like Shaver’s sculpture is watching “A Lifetime of Service and a Mile of Thread (Button Butler).”
Much of the work Berry selected corresponds with the artistic concerns in Cape’s own practice. As a master woodworker, he is known for producing meticulous pieces that underscore the socio-economic conditions reflected in architecture and design. Like Oatman’s video—a satirical narrative revolving around three men who work for obsolete manufacturing businesses (needle, thread, and button companies)—Margo Mensing’s diaphanous “Lack Curtains,” which hang in front of two large windows, similarly pay tribute to a disappearing industry. Comprised of T-shirt collars and loose thread, it is an homage to the defunct Collar Factory in Troy, NY.
Ever since visiting New Orleans, where Cape assisted in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort, he has been particularly interested in mobile homes and what they symbolize for those who live in them. Usually it’s misfortune or poverty that impels people to take up residence in a trailer. In such cases it’s meant to be a temporary solution, but sadly, they frequently become permanent abodes. (The trailer Cape used had been home to a couple who built a new house and were more than happy to give Cape the old one.) With this in mind, the trailer, like the High Line, can be considered a representation of transience, mobility, and impermanence—themes picked up on by Berry. Gina Occhiogrosso’s video, “Homework,” splices footage of a full-size home being dislodged from its foundation, with shots of the artist hauling a large dollhouse over grass and gravel. Eventually she gets it into an actual house in which she rather crudely disassembles her childhood relic. Ken Ragsdale’s “Wishram,” a photograph of an illusionistic paper sculpture, depicts a mid-size camper rounding a hilltop bend bathed in a yellow-orange light. Like Occhiogrosos, Ragdale is dealing with a memory from his youth, but rather than destroy the object that embodies the memory, he gives it lasting form.
If the Meatpacking District could be said to have a time vortex it would be right where Cape’s trailer is parked. The buildings surrounding it represent the present; the High Line above it, the past; and the adjacent construction site would be the future. Because Cape’s project is fundamentally a consideration of our relationships with the built environment, it actively engages with each of these periods. However it’s necessarily a short-term engagement. Once the project concludes, the artwork will be disassembled, the trailer discarded, and The Other End of the Line will have moved from a concept, to a creation, to a memory.