When is a house not just a home? When it's the subject of an exhibition, called "Dwellings," at the Rockford Art Museum.
At first glance, as you enter the museum's main gallery, the images look plain, even prosaic: a picture of a salt storage facility, houses, farm or commercial buildings. Pretty straightforward. But look a little closer, said museum curator Carrie Johnson. She's paired up pictures by Juan Fernandez and Jacqueline Moses around the perimeter of the gallery. Johnson said they both draw on that experience we've all had: traveling along and seeing an abandoned building on the side of the road. Fernandez concentrates on commercial buildings – structures that are simple, anonymous, and at the same time, recognizable.
"And what he does is he goes into Photoshop and he pulls kind of all of the unique qualities that they would have out of them," she said. "So it's even making them more desolate looking."
And at the same time, Johnson said, more familiar – more "Where-have I-seen-that-before?"
Moses starts with photographs, too, but she takes a different path. Hers are of little houses she found on her travels abroad. She makes collages of the photos, scans the collage onto a canvas, and then paints over some of the elements.
"What I love about this process," Johnson said, "is that she's still leaving a lot of the photograph visible. She's not painting over everything. So it kind of trips your eye a little. You're going 'Is that a photograph or is that part of her painting?'"
And no matter what you decide, you're still left wondering, "What’s going on here? Is this real?" The answer is not always obvious, though for one piece featuring a house with a roof on top AND bottom, realism isn't the point.
The exhibit continues into the adjacent Kuller Gallery where works by Shana McCaw and Brent Budsberg greet the eye. They include a distressed miniature home, with broken fencing to match, and what appears to be – and is -- the rickety frame of a barn that had burned down.
"And it's been recaptured in this gallery space," Johnson said. "And it's starting to create this story about what happened at this building, what happened at this dwelling. 'Did anybody ever live here? Was anybody hurt during this fire?'"
Amid all these exteriors, there are some interiors of a sort. Artist Joe Cassen has created miniature rooms – remnants, really, just a foot or so across – using torn cardboard boxes and found material. Here, too, there is that sense of abandonment. They show signs of distress: a fire, an accident or worse, or simply dingy from neglect. Odd, macabre even. And yet, Johnson said, you might find something familiar.
"I look at some of these with the shag carpet," she said, "and, you know, this weird wallpaper and I go, 'Oh my gosh this looks like my house when I was growing up on the east side of Rockford.'"
We hope Johnson’s house was kept in better shape than these rooms. Even the arrangement is a mess, by design. Per the artist, the installation consisted of flinging the boxes into a corner.
Johnson said this a is a good show for someone to come in and sit with the pieces for a while, ingest them, and figure out what is really happening in each.
"Because all of these pieces tell a story," she said. "It's not just that you're looking at a pretty picture of a flower on the wall and that's all there is to it. You're really looking into the environmental, political and social aspects of these pieces."
Johnson said that story will be different for each person, influenced by their own history.
It all sounds weighty, reflecting what Johnson said is the artists' take on that shared experience of loss that comes with change, a change exemplified by the empty places they saw and re-imagined. Johnson even set the gallery lights lower to emphasize the feeling.
At the same time, though, there are whimsical touches, even funny ones, along with the serious and perplexing. In many cases, those elements are all mixed up together.
In other words, this exhibition of buildings, with nary a person in sight, seems very human.