Francis Cape, 54, long a maker of lovingly crafted, almost Shaker-like minimal-architectural installations involving handsome walls of perfectly made and painted wainscoting, is trying to get art to do one of the things it was intended to do 10,000 years ago: Act as a balm. Last November, two months after Hurricane Katrina, Cape went to New Orleans for a show of his work at the Louisiana State Museum. While there he photographed the flooded middle-class neighborhoods of Gentilly and St. Roch. Although the neighborhoods weren’t completely devastated the destruction was still catastrophic.
For this ethically, elegantly resonant exhibition, Cape framed these pictures and installed them around the Murray Guy space in Chelsea. We see broken front porches, torn-apart doorways, silted-over driveways, smashed walls, holes in roofs, mildewed interiors, dead trees, stained fences, broken staircases, peeling paint, and wrecked cars. It’s America as ghost town, war zone, and apocalypse.
If all Cape did was take some pictures and put them up, his work could be called opportunistic. What makes this way more than news is that Cape has hung these pictures over a wraparound installation of his beautifully constructed wainscoting. The woodwork is painted a lulling shade of sandy ocher. The paint is burnished and satiny. This gesture—based on care, craft, attention to detail, and time—in such close proximity to things torn away in an instant has a soothing psychic effect and is a way of saying a sort of material prayer for all the loss. Cape is foregrounding something that has probably always been in his work. But never so movingly as now.