For her exhibition “Crafting Settlement,” Abigail Anne Newbold, an artist who lives in Somerville, Mass., fabricated a three-room enclosure based on a type of 19th-century New England farmhouse that efficiently linked domesticity and labor. Related tableaux, consisting of such items as tools, furniture and garments, appeared on and along the walls of the gallery. While Newbold reflects through her work on the histories of pioneer individualism and collective settlement in the U.S., she has developed a modern sculptural language based on modular units, à la Buckminster Fuller and Ikea showrooms. The entire setup looked as if it could be broken down and packed up, to be reassembled in a new location. Newbold previously explored the character of a nomadic homemaker in an installation for the 2011 edition of Art X Detroit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. An individualist spirit remained in “Crafting Settlement,” even as Newbold’s protagonist seemed to have laid down stakes.
The homestead structure was built of a light hickory frame secured with nylon pegs that also suspended the quilts, screens and tarps that served as its walls and ceiling. Inside was a wood-burning stove and hurricane lamps, some fitted with electric bulbs. Outside the house, she had placed a number of objects, including a hand truck, axes, pulleys, a hand pump modified with a modern fire-hose attachment, and an old fuel tank, rigged with a hose and nozzle. Many of these are found items subjected to a process of historical reconstruction and synthetic reinvention. Her combinatory process extends as well to her decorative vocabulary, for example, the stitched architectural motifs like tiles or wainscoting on the quilts that made up the walls.
Around the perimeter of the gallery, the display featured a monogrammed linen jumpsuit and a gold lamé-lined fur collar, both finely tailored by the artist, and hip-high fishing boots with strap-on skis. Period ax heads have historically accurate handles but are finished with synthetic Day-Glo fixtures. Antique machinery, notably an intricate delousing machine, is updated with fashionable upholstery. A covered wagon with anachronistic rubber wheels is tied to a bicycle instead of oxen. The riding crop attached to the bike and a gasoline can inside the wagon complete a circle of references to transportation: horsepower, pedal power and fossil fuels.
Newbold’s mixture of organic and synthetic materials in an autumnal palette with fluorescent accents gave her historically informed installation the stylish coherence of a fall runway collection. Newbold reminds us that rugged individualism and the comfort of community have always involved style choices as well as values and strategies of survival.
There were hints, as well, of a more somber mood. Newbold constructed a front-porch vignette along one wall, presenting an antique rocker re-caned in yellow synthetic ribbon. Above this were a brass eagle, a silent dinner bell and a flag emblazoned with the crest of the compound—a reflective yellow cross-waving in the wind from a small electric fan. The scene, with its allusions to both sociability and solitary existence, served as a reminder that our claims of self-sufficiency draw meaning from the interactions we maintain (or not) with the people around us.