The domestic interior, as imagined in “Better Homes,” was a far cry from the space of private material comfort proffered by Better Homes and Gardens magazine. The 16 artists included in the exhibition presented pluralistic—and often contradictory—visions of the home, characterizing it as both a shelter and a stage; an object of consumer desire and a site of political resistance; a sanctuary for the family and a space wired into the mass media. This reappraisal of domesticity is timely, coinciding with a moment when the definition of the household is being expanded in the U.S. and Europe. (The Defense of Marriage Act was struck down a month before the exhibition closed.) But the strongest works also traced historically contested ideas about the meaning of hearth and home.
Several works in the exhibition cast a skeptical eye on the rhetoric of modernist architecture, which at its dogmatic peak linked residential design and social transformation. Canoas, a 2010 film by the Copenhagen-based Brazilian artist Tamar Guimarães, adopts the perspective of servants employed at a luxurious house near Rio de Janeiro designed by Oscar Niemeyer in the 1950s. As we glimpse, through expansive panes of glass, an elite crowd swilling cocktails and debating the aims of modernist housing in Brazil, their paeans to the “public good” dissolve into a vision of private luxury. Similarly, Martha Rosler’s 1993 documentary video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like? is set in the seeming ruin of a Le Corbusier housing complex built in the 1960s in the South of France. But far from a wholesale dismissal of utopian building projects, Rosler’s video captures a thriving community of residents whose critique of modernist aesthetics was grounded in grassroots progressivism.
The exhibition made clear that “the home” is hardly a hegemonic concept. British artist Anthea Hamilton created a tableau composed of mannequins dressed in Japanese-style chef’s clothing, with culinary utensils and plastic vegetables spread over black and white tiles. Conjuring something between a Kabuki set and a department store display, Hamilton’s piece imagined the kitchen as a theatrical space, with consumer goods presented as props to be used in an ambiguous performance. For Activities with Dobromierz (1972-74), the Polish husband-and-wife duo KwieKulik photographed their infant son in a series of idiosyncratic arrangements of household objects. Images of Dobromierz sprawled among onions and books or crouched in pails and boxes were projected on the concrete walls of the SculptureCenter’s basement. KwieKulik, who worked together from 1971 to 1987, were known for having transformed their private living space into an artistic laboratory. While the domestic sphere was being challenged in the West in the 1970s as closed and sexist, in the Eastern bloc it became a space of artistic freedom, however limited.
Two photographs by LaToya Ruby Frazier of abandoned houses in her hometown of Braddock, Penn., were somber standouts in the show, serving as a foil to more playful takes on domestic life. Frazier’s documentation of the interior of a dilapidated house spilling onto the sidewalk and a quaint shell of another house consumed by ivy suggests that what home looks like is not necessarily up to us, but subject to forces beyond our immediate control. The haunting images highlighted the absence of social practice and critical architecture in the exhibition—Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses and Teddy Cruz’s retrofitting of Californian McMansions for communities of Mexican immigrants come to mind. Including such examples would have not only wrested the notion of “better homes” off the pages of shelter magazines, but more fully explored its possibilities in the overlapping space of aesthetics and activism.