TRESPASSING: HOUSES X ARTISTS
Bellevue Art Museum, 510 Bellevue Way N.E., 425-519-0770 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.; noon-8 p.m. Wed.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.; noon-5 p.m. Sun. ends Jan. 5, 2003
ON THE SURFACE, "Trespassing" is not much to look at. A joint venture with the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in L.A. (where most of the nine participating artists are based), this exhibit is a random-looking collection of prints, drawings, computer simulations, and architectural models plunked about the first two floors of the museum with no obvious plan. What's worse, a lot of the elements of the show designed to make it more interactive and viewer-friendly—like wall-mounted headphones with commentary from the artists and an interactive design program running on an iMac—seem to be not functioning about half the time. Part of the blame goes to the museum building itself, which, with its open, ill-defined rooms and scant wall space, seems better suited to showing cars than art. But it's surprising that a show on architecture wouldn't make more careful and dramatic use of interior space.
For all that, the concepts in "Houses x Artists" (read "houses by artists") are more important than the objects, and if you are willing to look past its unimpressive surface to the ideas contained within, the exhibit succeeds in expanding our notions of what a residential structure can be. Though the show is billed as a look at houses artists would build if free from all material constraints, the best pieces are not pie-in-the sky fantasies but designs that tantalize with their feasibility.
A case in point is Chris Burden's "small skyscraper." A tall, skinny, one-person dwelling, the design—seen here in a scale model and a number of sketches and photomontages—grew out of Burden's smart-ass reading of the L.A. County building code, according to which structures of less than 400 square feet may be built without a permit. Noticing that nothing was mentioned about how many stories such permit-free buildings may be, Burden designed his "skyscraper" with four floors of 100 square feet each, connected by a small elevator and topped with a deck. The structure's lightweight aluminum tubing (the same stuff that undergirds office cubicles) and sliding glass windows were chosen so the thing could, in theory, be erected without the use of skilled labor or heavy machinery.
Burden's small skyscraper engages the imagination with the possibilities of life within its severely vertical proportions (I like to imagine taking a twilight elevator ride to the deck, clutching a cocktail freshly prepared in the second-floor kitchen). But Burden, speaking from his Topanga studio, and sounding like a real-estate lobbyist rather than a bohemian artist, says he's less interested in promoting some alternative lifestyle ("Walden Pond and all that") than in conspiring to annoy building inspectors. The design is "basically about chafing under regulations," he says. "The building code is important, but I question its importance to an owner-built structure."
While Burden's quixotic campaign against building regulations may not appeal to most viewers (I tend to think people would in fact kill themselves if left to build houses unsupervised by the government), like all good art, "small skyscraper" has a lively presence independent of its creator's intent. The design combines spartan low-cost living with the privileges (real and symbolic) of a high-rise built for one.
Like "small skyscraper," the house design of Julian Opie is more interesting for being grounded in the nuts and bolts of real materials. The design consists of a series of modular U-shapes that nest within each other to form a house in an arrangement chosen by the owner. By selecting which way the open end of the U faces, the owner/co-designer manages the size of each room and its relation to other rooms. You are invited to see for yourself just how mutable this scheme is by rearranging 50 unwieldy U-shaped concrete blocks on the museum floor.
Ren饠Petropoulos, a painter whose increasingly three-dimensional work finally broke out into architectural plans, has the audaciously boneheaded notion of constructing houses out of bits of convenience stores and mini-marts. This is a funny idea that would have been a lot funnier if, like Opie and Burden, Petropoulos had worked out the real-world specifics of her plans rather than simply presenting photomontages of quickie marts cut into vaguely houselike shapes. Another design that doesn't quite come off is Barbara Bloom's "architectural mood ring" of a house (presented in a the form of a board game, several pieces of custom furniture, and that iMac program that doesn't seem to work), in which each functional room can be mutated into any other. But why would anyone want to fry an egg in what once was the bathroom? Bloom's plans founder like a solution in search of a problem.
"Trespassing" is the second of three major art exhibitions this year about architecture, opening just after CoCA's intriguing but cryptically abstract "blurred," and before the Henry's "Out of Site: Fictional Architectural Spaces," which opens in November and sounds like it might be lost in theoretical la-la land. Despite its shoddy presentation, "Houses x Artists" shows that it is possible to be both expansively imaginative and grounded in reality and may turn out to be the best of the bunch.