Friday, December 26, 2014

Birdsell exhibit a nuanced understanding of history


The Birdsell mansion at Colfax and William is a relic of South Bend's past, but an art exhibit in the massive house builds on the structure's historic identity to raise questions about the city's present and future, as well.

The work of 21 artists is spread throughout the mansion, lurking on the other side of doorways and around corners, upstairs and down, tucked in dilapidated corners and hung in broad, brightly lit spaces. The show is a treasure hunt out of time, one that encourages introspection about the fleetingness of the lives we live and the fate of the things we build.

Nowhere is the diversity of the show more apparent than just inside the front door, where installations by Charles Jevremovic and Justin Barfield flank the entryway. Jevremovic's collection of vintage electronics, dimly lit and bathed in the sound of spectral radio transmissions, delivers a jarring temporal shift; we are in the Cold War era, well after the mansion was built but certainly long before today. Step through the door to the right, though, where Barfield's massive organic construction grows through the house's ceilings and walls, and we're in the future, as the Earth reclaims the building.

Jack O'Hearn's work, an amazingly detailed construction of a 1970s den, is a living installation in which visitors are encouraged to interact with the piece and the artist. Emily Scott Beck's relief sculptures reduce domestic relationships to simple figurative forms and fragments, and Sarah Edmands Martin's wall drawings and texts tell more specific domestic stories. Mary Fashbaugh's brailed texts are more difficult to read, suggesting the way in which the building's stories are hidden and require us to tease them out.

Other artists address the building's journey from luxury to decline. A collection of work by Notre Dame photography students in the third-floor ballroom speaks to the mansion's origins in the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is ideally located in a room whose windows afford views of the city's contemporary downtown.

The work of Nalani Stolz, Allison Polgar and Andrew Strong confront the specifics of decline, both in the building's actual physical structure and in the culture that surrounds it. Stolz and Strong explore the transformation of the material stuff of the house, the furnishings and building materials; Polgar looks beyond the house and considers architecture of a very different kind.

Some of the artists step beyond the constructs of history and economics to look at the essentials of nature that underlie all of it.

Barfield's giant root-like construction draws the most obvious connection between the building and nature, and the small sculptures of Rachel Suzanne Smith bring more discreet natural forms into the house. The work of Katelyn Seprish and Lauren Stratton, with their unflinching ruminations on the reality of the body, physicality and sexuality, can help us to think about the people who lived and worked in the building as corporeal beings instead of as historical figures.

As a whole, the Birdsell exhibition is an important step toward a nuanced understanding of the city's history. It stays clear of sentimentality and revisionism, and it's not afraid to refer to stories whose endings aren't necessarily pretty. It is surprising in its honesty, and when it's combined with the facts of the mansion's history, it's an invitation to think frankly about where we've been and where we're going.