Ellen Brooks made an indelible first impression in the mid ’70s when she showed studio portraits of nude adolescents, touchingly vulnerable and self-conscious in the early throes of puberty. She followed that series with two very different bodies of work—psychologically freighted dollhouse tableaux and mechanically atomized still lifes and landscapes—that staked out key positions in their postmodern moment. When that moment passed, Brooks regrouped, working but rarely exhibiting during the ’90s, and her new show feels tentative, transitional, but rich with possibility.
Her subject, an outgrowth of an ongoing book project on hiding places, is shelter of the most fragile and impromptu sort: the tents and lean-tos that children construct from old sheets, afghans, and pillows in the corner of a living room. Brooks, who suggests that this sort of child’s play is a formative experience of secrecy, privacy, and autonomy, photographs some of these hideaways from the inside to remind us of their power as sites of fantasy and escape. More often, though, we see them from the outside, as abject if still rather cheery sculpture or, more disconcertingly, as refuges for the homeless and the dispossessed.
Brooks shies away from this last association, pointing out that her cardboard refrigerator box with its cutout doorway and awning is clearly in a backyard, but the suburban milieu can’t override images of ad hoc refugee encampments or sidewalk cocoons. For too many people, privacy and autonomy are still luxuries, and homes have to be built and rebuilt every day. Brooks’s playhouse forts have their charms—and their limits. The shelter they offer is lovely but illusory. It collapses long before childhood’s over, leaving us scurrying about for another patch of untroubled grace.