In 1958, a six-year-old Mad Magazine published a parody of America’s fourth-most popular newsstand title, which they called Bitter Homes and Gardens. Among its articles were “They Built Their House on a Lot 22 Inches Wide”; a “How-The …” column that put a lawn on rollers in order to drag it to water; and a piece on turning a second bathroom into a brodacious mancave, with a picture of a naked gal wrapped in a towel. Inside, the editors poked fun at feminists from Susan B. Anthony to Simone de Beauvoir. On the cover, a jug-eared Alfred E. Neuman baited militants with his trademark Dave Letterman gap: What, me worry?
More than 55 years later—and half a century after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique launched feminism’s second wave—a new consensus has emerged among activists, social theorists, economists, and even artists about the corrosive impact of once-lauded phenomena like two-job households, telecommuting, and micro-mini-apartments. The problem? Together with falling birth and marriage rates, they exercise a crushing effect on what families and individuals once considered the sanctity of home life. It’s not just that women remain overworked and underpaid compared to men. If people keep hurtling through the economic churn at the current productivist clip, today’s experts figure, the leisure and personal fulfillment of the planet’s worker bees will depend entirely on Xbox 360 and Grindr.
The exhibition “Better Homes” at the venerable SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens, takes up these and other issues related to the idea of “home” as it has changed over the centuries. Organized during the current period of stocktaking for mainstream and radical feminism, this brainy display weaves together an important story which, to paraphrase Orwell, often goes unrecognized for being lodged beneath the collective proboscis. Put together by curator Ruba Katrib, “Better Homes” features the work of 16 established and emerging artists from several continents. A compelling but uneven exhibition, at times it crackles with feisty surprise; at others, it falters from overthinking and objects that feel like clip art.
“Better Homes” is very much an exhibition in the service of recent sociological findings: specifically, reports indicating that in high-income parts of the world, children and spouses are increasingly seen as an impediment to stability and social advancement. Tackling, among other data, the results of a 2012 study ominously titled “The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future” (published by the equally ominous-sounding Civil Service College of Singapore), Katrib has marshaled visual evidence that reflects artists’ preoccupations with current patterns of consumerism as well as shifting global demographics. Inspired by factors like free trade, the recession, love, adoption, the successes and failures of the women’s and gay rights movements, and a general winnowing of family values (go Democrats!), the art in “Better Homes” mirrors these phenomena. If, as one researcher says, “Under the social and economic systems of developed countries, the cost of a child outweighs the child’s usefulness,” Katrib’s exhibition pictures 21st-century Edward Hopper digs for the devoutly single, the resolutely childless, and the professionally lonely.
Though the trend is rarely acknowledged, a great deal of art today doesn’t care what object it inhabits—or how well it’s made—as long as it can carry the tune of its ideas. That this often results in tone-deaf renditions of art ditties of every stripe hasn’t dampened the enthusiasm for this kind of intellectual lip sync. “Better Homes” is no exception. Itself a home to didactic photos (like Josephine Pryde’s blown-up snaps of an adopted toddler), bad agitprop (Robert Gober’s chubby lithograph of himself in a New York Times bridal ad), and at least one wooden installation (Anthea Hamilton’s kitchen as a “laboratory” in ceramic tiles, mannequins, and cooking implements), the exhibition occasionally slips into a vapidity that leaves it feeling ripped from Brooklyn Curators Illustrated.
Nevertheless, “Better Homes” displays genuine intellectual rigor. Not coincidentally, its better angels appear courtesy of instances of hardcore conceptualism, or, alternately, works of art made with loving care for conventional craft.
Among the former is Martha Rosler’s 1993 video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, which documents life inside a housing project designed by Le Corbusier, the modernist who defined architecture as “machines for living.” There is also Neil Beloufa’s videotaped performance, Real Estate, which features an artist saying anything to rent a pocket-sized Paris apartment to a revolving door of clients desperate enough to listen. And then there is Carissa Rodriguez’s You again (Ancora tu), an 18-karat rose gold Cartier LOVE™ pendant interred inside a 1,200-pound block of pink marble. This performance-as-sculpture not only sets commercial love into a designer tombstone, but also evokes the death of minimalism—legendary golden couple Ana Mendieta and Carl Andre, their biopic-ready fatal attraction included.
More conventional fine artists are brilliantly represented by the haunting black-and-white photographs of LaToya Ruby Frazier, our age’s poet laureate of urban misery; the plastic stemware of Kirsten Pieroth, which mimics crystal along with the antique notion of family heirlooms; and Jonathas de Andrade, a Brazilian Mr. Fixit whose step-by-step display for building a double bed from repurposed materials blows eye-stabbing Ikea manuals clean out of their cardboard. Additionally, E’wao Kagoshima’s little drawing-collage narratives twist doodling, decoration, and sex into small-scale revelations. Home is, indeed, where the kink is.
Finally, an elegant 2010 short film, Canoas, by Tamar Guimarães—the exhibition’s best work—portrays a cocktail party inside a lavish Oscar Niemeyer house where chic chatter and copious wine flow, and all are oblivious to the world outside. The film, elegant and fussily verbose, reminds me of the art world today, absorbed in its own lint-gathering. A perfect coda for “Better Homes,” it proves another important instance in which this exhibition directs us to concentrate on both the comforts and traps of the household familiar.