Andrew Edlin Gallery | May 2 – June 13, 2015
It is tempting to talk about Beverly Buchanan’s diminutive sculptures of houses and shacks as though they were built by a Lilliputian population, who live their little lives inside of them. The eccentric structures could be homes instead of sculptures. In this tight-knit community on a bright white island, doors remain open, friendly residents call out to one another from windows, children scurry about with balls and sticks, and dogs and cats rest in the shadows of the stilts.
This temptation is not wholly at odds with Buchanan’s project. Best known for the small architectural sculptures and bright oil-pastel drawings like the ones that comprise this exhibition, Buchanan began her art practice in 1971, when, as a healthcare educator in New Jersey, she turned down a place at medical school and enrolled at the Art Students League. There she studied under the African-American AbEx painter Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden, developing a practice that drew inspiration from rural architectural traditions in the South, where she grew up in an African-American middle-class family. She writes, “my vision and interest shifted to the reality of current places and their surrounding landscape. The house and its yard and the road behind and across.” Buchanan seeks to evoke the texture and spaces of living, and her sculptures and drawings on display at Andrew Edlin Gallery enact a peculiar marriage of vivacity and muteness, of the eccentric and the elegiac.
The size of architectural models or dollhouses, Buchanan’s shack sculptures are arranged across a broad plinth in the middle of the gallery’s back room, the houses turning to face one another, while the viewer observes from the perimeter. These brim with life and motion. Built unevenly on stilts, top-heavy and disjointed, with slanted roofs and boards jutting out, the sculptures seem caught in between states of assembly and disassembly. Like a cubist collage, they present both a contained image and an array of fragments, slipping and sliding against each other, undermining the very form they constitute. In some of the sculptures, like “House of Scraps” (2011), the seemingly endless proliferation of material additions invokes an imaginary slew of tiny hands and bodies working vigorously to add and embellish—one more slat here, another pane of glass there, blocks and sheets of wood growing upward and outward, far exceeding the demands of mere functionality, mere shelter.
And yet despite the energy Buchanan has imbedded in the forms of her sculptures, they also exude a startling silence. These homes are, after all, quite empty; Lilliputians in absentia. Crouching down to peer into one of the houses located near the edge of the platform, I saw dirt strewn across the floor and the corner of a shapeless wooden block, like the residue of an inhabitant long disappeared. The simultaneous vitality and vacancy of these structures creates a vague sense of loss. In “Coming Home the Back Way” (1991), a neighboring pile of rubble stages a sort of “before and after” image of these structures. It acts as a poignant reminder of the volatility and transience of the real communities and way of life that serve as Buchanan’s inspiration: just as easily as the shacks were built up from foraged scraps, so they may return to that state.
A similar sense of emptiness animates Buchanan’s oil pastels, which line the hallway connecting front and back galleries. In these pictures, the square and rectangular structures buck up, clapboards undulate above the confetti-colored landscapes. Her harried application of the bright pastels injects the images with feverish motion, and in many places the brown paper shows through, so that the images loiter on the surface of the paper. In contrast to the palpable material presence of the wooden and plastic sculptures, these houses, with their weightlessness and psychedelic palette, occupy a deserted, dreamlike world.
The silence permeating Buchanan’s artworks is amplified by the austerity of the gallery space. The gallery’s back room, where all but three of Buchanan’s shack structures are displayed, is serene and airy, but rather than let the artwork “breathe,” the gallery’s ambient white light bears down on the little houses, neutering their vitality, like the brand-new suburban development, taupe and white and gleaming, that swallows up the old village.
The disjunct between the exhibition space and the artwork is distracting and puzzling. The work, which engages so purposefully with vernacular visual traditions, is quite at odds with the white cube aesthetic. This complaint may indeed be tired, but how to contain the inertness of the stark white walls, plinths, and pedestals!? There is, of course, no evident solution to this quandary, and part of the problem may also lie in the one-dimensionality of the show’s installation, with its strict separation of drawing and sculpture, and sparse installation. But this dissonance itself may also be fruitful, posing questions about the demands of exhibiting different kinds of art.
In spite of the chilly gallery setting, Buchanan’s small-scale sculptures emit a strong affective power, the pathos of a recently extinguished vitality. It is as though the activities of a whole cadre of people—milling about, building, calling out to one another, laughing, playing catch—have suddenly ceased. This push and pull between life and death, presence and absence, gives these structures their peculiar potency. In her artist’s statement, Buchanan writes of the importance of “remembering the look and feel of structures [...] this idea of memory versus reality” in her work. It is only fitting that, although muted in the gallery space, in my recollections, these structures truly come alive.