That single word evokes and suggests and even yearns. Stripped down and devoid of any patina of emotion, it of course points to something physical, tangible – something real, something constructed, functional, useful. That might be fine and well for the Gods who have risen above human feeling, but for the rest of us mere mortals it is a word fraught with sensation at the emotional and psychological levels. It’s a word of intimacy, of family and love. Add “less” to it, and all those things are devastatingly ripped away.
There are of course myriad artists who have explored the notion of home; the French writer Gaston Bachelard’s groundbreaking book The Poetics of Space became a guide for many of them, exploring the emotional spaces that grow up within the physical spaces and structures that are our homes. Among those artists are those literally excising aspects of those structures, stripping away portions of physical spaces so that emotional spaces might resonate more loudly within the context of the aesthetic
The most famous of that small group was probably the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark who, in the 1970s, did a series of extraordinary works in which he cut away sections of buildings scheduled for demolition. A work in Paris in which he cut through two townhouses, and a piece in which he did the same with a townhouse in Chicago are among his most famous works. They’re dramatic works, bold and intrusive – an aesthetic of vivid and brutal negation. Matta Clark died shortly after creating these pieces, but his influence has remained strong.
And that brings me, at long last, to the contemporary Canadian artist Emily Neufeld (www.emilyneufeld.com). She’s a Vancouver-based sculptor who studied at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in that city, and much of her work embraces (though is in no way limited by) an aesthetic of negation.
Like a lot of cities, Vancouver is undergoing enormous and radical transition as older homes are sold, demolished, and newer (usually much larger) homes put in their place. Tastes have changed, often not for the better. But between the old and the new there exists a space of interlude, a pause after the sale and before the demolition, and that’s where Neufeld comes in. Like Matta-Clark, Neufeld secures permission to enter these abandoned and doomed spaces, and create something fleeting. Often it’s a negation she literally carves out of the existent space, but not always.
Where Matta-Clark’s interventions were brutal (in one work, he bisected a entire house from roof to foundation) and of that kind of epic, even heroic scale that seemed rooted in the male machismo all too typical of his era, Neufeld’s are more subtle and in many instances involve additions and alternations to existent structures rather than aesthetically loud and showy excisions from them. Like Matta-Clark before, however, Neufeld’s work exists in documentary form, as secondary photographic imagery of the works which virtually no one would have ever had the opportunity to take in first-hand. Pieces are titled after the locations of the works. Like Yukon Street. In one image Neufeld shows us the unfolding/revelation of a wall interior, carefully having removed a section of plaster to reveal the underlying lath structure (a clue as to the period in which the home had been built) and in so doing shaping an elegant and sinuous wave form from end to end. In the kitchen of the home, it’s not a subtraction that’s occured but rather an addition: the double sinks are containers not for water or dirty dishes but instead the greenery of grass. The kitchen of Trenton Place has a neat rectangle cut through the floor and joists directly in front of the sink, framed by lines extending from the corners of the cleavage up to the kitchen walls like rays of, oh I dunno, darkness, of non-light. The excision here becomes something more than merely just a negation of the physical space, something more than a black hole absorbing our attention. And in Grand Boulevard, large swaths of the house’s wall-to-wall carpeting have been cut away to reveal the turquoise underlay like waterways gently coiling around marooned, uninhabited islands of carpet.
Where Matta-Clarks excisions were in part about the drama of the large scale (and make no mistake about it, they were very very good), Neufeld’s are more rooted in a human scale. Horseshoe Bay is another wall reveal, but this time not to the lath beneath plaster, to a substratum, but instead to transparency. The geometry of a deep vee notch cut through existent drywall panels of the home’s construction shows the otherwise hidden armature of wood on which the wall depends, and aspects of the home’s wiring and heating upon which the function of the home depends. But it also shows through to the room beyond. There is revelation proffered, here, a contextualized look upon the domestic realm, for sure, but there is more. Much more. There’s a breaking of barriers, a rupture in the membranes of the home’s myriad metaphors.
In his Poetics of Space, Bachelard wrote that “it is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” Neufeld’s work is deeply committed to the notion that “home,” however we imagine it, is ultimately transitory, ever-changing and shifting in keeping with the ever-changing nature of our Self. These homes within which she creates only barely exist in these, her images, as places on the very cusp of radical transition. Impermanent.
And Emily Neufeld lets us see right through them.
By Gil McElroy