anticipating departure

John Preus

The Historic Fenn House, home to SHOP.  5638 South Woodlawn Avenue.


The word conjures up images of chicken soup and stale bread, joyous family life and crippling alienation, boredom and invention, brotherly love and sibling rivalry… . Perennial and immanent, local and metaphysical, nostalgic and future-oriented, the images and memories of home are a conglomerate of emotion-laden things, spaces, visions, and the people and gods that inhabit them.  The homemaker is tasked with the alchemy of arrangement, with flooding physical space with care, with hosting and inviting conviviality, with setting the stage for the performance of selfhood.  The carpenter and architect build according to the imagined contours of the human spirit, and its propensities to dwell beyond its own shape.  The “Homeland” is always seen through the lens of childhood, where our politics are formed with their personal and collective fences and breaches.  Home is the place, imagined or real, to which we are reconciled, and are always in the process of losing.

The Main Room during the opening of This House is Not a Home, featuring music by Zamin

Even though I am there as infrequently as once per week, I am already beginning to feel nostalgic for SHOP, a sort of home away from home for me and my family.  I will miss the potlucks that I rarely had a chance to attend, the kids workspace that my children disappear into the minute we walk into the building, decorated with masks from Bert Stablers art classes; the bridge club that met in the library clacking across Dan Peterman’s plastic floor; the Chinese Dancers who met on the 3rd floor everyday and laid their coats on Shawn Greene and Katrin Asbury’s model of a Japanese House, and who communicated with smiles and bowing gestures because they don’t speak English; the nights at Red Flags tending bar badly, and drinking good beer out of plastic cups; the woodshop with the low ceiling;  the exhibitions and art events that I can often only partially attend to because I am trying to get the tap to quit foaming, or trying to get the kids to quit playing with Alberto Aguilar’s booby traps.  This is how I like to look at art.  How do Kate Baird’s paintings look with a hockey stick leaning against them? (not bad as it turns out, but better blue than red.)  How do Rachel Herman’s photographs look with a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin playing piano in front of them?  How did we get the idea that a clean white room with nothing else in it is the best way to look at art?  It turns out that just about anything, in a clean white room with nothing else in it looks at least presentable, at least like something worth looking at for a minute.

The Soft Shop, by Kayce Bayer and Chris Lin

I admit it, I don’t trust the whiteness.  I understand that it is a necessary fiction, a wish for an uncluttered contemplative atmosphere, a longing for a kind of analytic engagement akin to academic rationality.  But I want an art that gets tangled up in its subject matter.  I am a failed analytic philosopher and ethicist, due mostly to general insecurity, but due also to the sense that nothing I have ever done went quite right.  I am attracted to analytic thought because it attempts to disentangle the thicket of daily percepts and experiences.  Language, as certain thinkers claim (I think it was Lacan?) is a system of differences, and one of the reasonable critiques of apartment galleries, and non-institutional installations, is that there are not clear enough differences between what is, and what is not art.  So it is possible to make mistakes.

As it happened, Heather Mekkelson’s installation was partially dismantled by some reasonable person thinking that the dish soap bottle in the sink was actually a dish soap bottle, and not a part of her installation.  The same mistake could be made with Warhol’s Brillo Boxes Circa 1955, had they been placed by the janitorial closet.  I would hope that Heather had the good sense not to get too upset about that, but I did not have the pleasure of witnessing her reaction.  One could also be caught contemplating, heaven forbid, an object that is not art, which I suppose could have serious consequences.  I came close to being shot once when I laughed at a policeman pointing a gun and flashlight at me, thinking it was the boys in the frat house playing a theatrical prank on me.  An unusual instance no doubt, but art that doesn’t sit quietly on the walls, or safely on a pedestal can cause all sorts of friction.

The Children’s Project Space

There’s also a way, following the feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, to think about domesticity as a theatrical arena.  To behave in any way other than pure impulse is in a sense to perform; to perform generosity, kindness, justice, empathy, listening, interest…  I once told a friend after the birth of my first daughter, that I was never so happy to leave in the morning, and so happy to come home again after work.  Life with a family is so deeply incongruous, so troubling and sweet, the renegade pendulum that swings between blind animal impulses and performed rationality threatens from one minute to the next to lobotomize the most sanguine among us.  Children grow before your very eyes, and you struggle to remember what they looked like a year prior.  We remember turns of phrase that they picked up in experimenting with language, like an ill-fitted suit, and are saddened when the lisp disappears, or they finally learn to say “crocodile” instead of “buckadido.”  There are many strategies, more or less familiar for framing these moments, precious or otherwise, to hold back our own dissolution, the eventual dispersal of our collected memories and experiences into the ether.   So we are left with our imperfect attempts to extract the full potential of an event or experience.  But I am inclined to think that the two impulses are at odds.  Which is to say, one either has the experience in all of its glory, and lets it go, or one keeps a degree of distance or abstraction from the experience which provides a more convenient framework for comment and documentation.

Red Flags Family Salon

The final show at SHOP, currently in the works, will be about trying to find this balance, between holding on and letting go.  Similarly, it may not be quite possible to be in charge of creating the potential, the framework for conviviality, while also participating in it.  One is in a sense investing in a sort of social account, from which it might be hoped that future withdrawals can be made.  One gives to the social body in hopes of some return.  Altruism is among the most remarkable performances.

Shop is one of what I suspect will become an increasing number of spaces like it, that are hybrids between the rituals of daily life-reified or not- and the moments of blissful ascension that are possible through art and community life.  I don’t think we will recover from this so-called “economic downturn”.  I think we’re in it for the long haul, dear brothers and sisters. There will be pockets of recovery, as the shell game of wealth continues its market-driven, schizoid stutter step across the social landscape, but most likely due to some temporary exploitation of a less powerful country’s resources, further privatization of food, air, water, shelter, or refinements on disaster capitalism which will benefit an increasingly smaller number of smart, beautiful, and/or lucky people.  We need to learn to live together again, to reconstitute the village, and the commons.  I bear no illusions of utopia.  I am talking about simple things, like learning to keep your coat off of the artwork; learning to lock the door to the common space when you leave; learning to put in 110% for the common good, even though none of us really knows what that is.  At least we can act like we do, and feel good about ourselves for trying.

Dan Peterman’s “Archive Southside”, at the Hyde Park Kunstverein

When a house is not a home, it is simply a place where things happen, like history as one thing after another.  The bifurcation of house and home, or the splitting them into two separate values is at once absolutely true and understandable, as many cliches are, but also misleading.  The “house” in this metaphor could be understood as the materials, the things, the bricks and mortar…while the “home” is the intangible qualities-the love, the care, the attention, the family, general engagement and contentment…  But it is through the material world that concern is exhibited and redeemed.

If a house is a home, it contains all of those things.  It suggests that the materials within the house have been saturated somehow with the presence of care.  So how is it that the house becomes a register for concern?   SHOP asks this both about the individual home and about the neighborhood as home to a community.  The “home-ness” of a neighborhood might be the sorts of things that demonstrate a fulfilling and satisfying quality of life, which would begin with the basic needs of decent and affordable shelter, employment, food, health care, education…and work its way up from there to include satisfying and engaging relationships, a feeling of good will, an existential connection to place, a sense of shared and vested interest in the community and the planet…By these criteria, this house is not a home for very many of us.