Review

Gregory Michael Hernandez: Rebuilt Homestead

LAXART, Los Angeles
Mohamed Sharif

Prima facie Gregory Michael Hernandez’s Rebuilt Homestead is a room-scaled object framed out of the skeletal remains of a collapsed wood desert house. Ark-like, it stands proudly in the middle of the gallery, whose walls are marked with the faint painted lines of a projective mapping of the shadows of the original structure on its site. Though the floor of the sculpture is situated on the same level as that of the gallery’s, we are momentarily displaced from it by means of a ceremonial approach, which prescribes our ascent via three painted wood steps to our arrival at a portal and landing, from which we descend into the sculpture by that same number of steps again.

The datum of this humble threshold is articulated by an inner lining of grey Portland cement plaster, which extends downward along the oblique, waist-height wall to form a bowl-like space within the structure and to define its singular ground proper. Like the aged wood members and generic metal fasteners, which hold the entire assemblage together at its vertices and edges, the plaster is an unassuming and ubiquitous material evocative of vernacular construction techniques and of the commonplace. Yet in its geometric bravura–it is a truncated cuboctahedron, no less!–and its crown of alert overhanging rafters, Rebuilt Homestead is so charged with evident artifice that we intuit that it has long severed its vernacular roots. We feel in our bones, while observing the sculpture’s very own, that it is a very uncommon thing indeed. Viewed frontally and in the round, both from within and without, its lozenge-shaped landscape and portrait window frames vibrate in the self-conscious play of optical games of foreshortening and parallax. Hesitantly we infer, blinking between clear and blurred vision, that we are both literally and phenomenally neither here nor there but elsewhere and in-between. So beg the questions: What is this and where are we?

Gradually we begin to realize that Rebuilt Homestead is a palpable and compelling conundrum to which there is no determinate answer. That is not to say that it operates solely as a puzzle or parlor game at a remove from the audience. On the contrary, it is generously open to interpretation and occupation as a meditative object whose historic narrative may be contemplated and conjured in silence and as a gathering place whose transparent chamber is open to the sound of conversation in the present. In and around it, we are reminded of Bruno Latour’s deliberations on Martin Heidegger’s conception of a “Thing,” (das “Ding”), and of Latour’s complex intensification of its etymologically related “Gathering,” which connotes both something outside of ourselves and something in which we assemble. Consequently the sculpture is of a world in which objects become things and where things are vital sites of complex conceptual entanglements rather than autonomous, lifeless vessels. Plural by nature, it is an enigma arousing within us a spectrum of complex corporal and psychic sensations, the most profound of which are provoked by the productive ambiguities of its constitutional, disciplinary, and temporal states.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, "Rebuilt Homestead," 2010. Salvaged wood from the homestead, cement, and hardware; 132 x 132 x 132 in. Courtesy of Stuart and Judy Spence. © Gregory Michael Hernandez. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, Rebuilt Homestead, 2010. Salvaged wood from the homestead, cement, and hardware; 132 x 132 x 132 in. Courtesy of Stuart and Judy Spence. © Gregory Michael Hernandez. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, "Rebuilt Homestead (Detail)," 2010. Salvaged wood from the homestead, cement, and hardware; 132 x 132 x 132 in. Courtesy of Stuart and Judy Spence. © Gregory Michael Hernandez. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, Rebuilt Homestead (Detail), 2010. Salvaged wood from the homestead, cement, and hardware; 132 x 132 x 132 in. Courtesy of Stuart and Judy Spence. © Gregory Michael Hernandez. Photo: Kelly Barrie.

Knowing the sculpture’s origin to be a humble desert abode, we are somewhat surprised at the artist’s claim that it is a “monumental reproduction” and wonder why the term is different to “Rebuilt” in the title. Notwithstanding its large scale relative to the gallery, what we see before us appears nothing like the simple, modest hut beheld in the mind’s eye. Rather, it is in fact a carefully contrived construct whose architectonics and physiognomy bear no fidelity to the original whatsoever. Moreover we are certain the curatorial reference to the geometrized mappings and projections of the original images of the desert house employed by Hernandez to make the sculpture were so potently transformative that it is categorically no imitation.

Yet we begin to contemplate the stuff common both to the house and sculpture, the constant content of the wood frame, and our certitude is dented. Other than its pronounced geometric silhouette not much distinguishes the sculpture from our image of makeshift vernacular shelters. To boot, its Bucky Fuller-like formalism, long absorbed into a libertarian desert vernacular, may be just that and no specific invention attributable to Hernandez at all. Alongside the sculpture we search for evidence of the transformative processes but find no indexical trace to authenticate the machinations of its becoming other. Absent this information, we ask if after all the sculpture literally lives up only to its name. Is it but only a faithful facsimile of the desert house, and is the extent of Hernandez’s artifice merely that of a DIY enthusiast? Stirring our skepticism further is the curatorial statement, which invokes “reconstruction,” “reproduction,” and “reincarnation,” three distinctly divergent and non-interchangeable terms, to describe the sculpture.

We return to the gallery entrance to inquire if we have missed any hint or documentation of information. There, behind the reception desk, we glimpse a photograph of a desert house of a most certainly different appearance to its “monumental reproduction.” There too, if retiringly so, is a collage of Hernandez’s cuboctrahedronal overlay onto a panoramic view to the landscape from the house proper. This image, from which a small-scale model was made, eventually gave rise to the construction of the sculpture itself.1 Interestingly, just as we begin to applaud Hernandez’s sophisticated formal manipulation and virtuoso talent, appreciative of the knowledge that Rebuilt Homestead does indeed exceed its ordinary heritage–looking nothing like it while being of it–we are coincidentally touched by the original image and experience a sense of empathy with a past as constructed as the present. Implicated in this momentary awareness is both a newness and a spirit of continuity, and though the sculpture is logically neither “rebuilt” nor a “homestead,” we welcome the possibility of its being so.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, "Captive Universe #15: Inside The Homestead (Architectural Blueprints For Rebuilding)," 2007. Hand-cut C-prints on mat board, framed by the artist using salvaged wood from the homestead; 48 x 40 in. Courtesy of the artist and LA><ART. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, Captive Universe #15: Inside The Homestead (Architectural Blueprints For Rebuilding), 2007. Hand-cut C-prints on mat board, framed by the artist using salvaged wood from the homestead; 48 x 40 in. Courtesy of the artist and LA>

This potential intermingling entails our reconsideration of the term “rebuilt” and the act of “rebuilding” less literally and more abstractly. Turning our attention once more to the curatorial text, we reconsider which of the three terms proffered to describe the sculpture may best expand our understanding of its constitution as something “rebuilt.” To wit, we find “reconstruction” and “reproduction” to be inadequate, as the sculpture is not mimetic; it is neither a dull re-enactment nor a glib simulacrum. Instead, it is the term “reincarnation” that resonates most profoundly when we consider the care and cultivation with which Hernandez built life anew within a Deleuzean network of transformative repetitions.2

At the disciplinary level, and over thirty years since Rosalind Krauss’s seminal essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” we see in Rebuilt Homestead a continuum of those sculpture practices of the sixties and seventies, identified by Krauss as “axiomatic structures,” operating between the neuter and complex conditions of “not-architecture” and “architecture,”respectively.3 In its transformation of a vernacular building into a bespoke one, Hernandez’s work reminds us of how generously Krauss’s diagrams once worked as discursive frameworks for variant art practices and of how open they remain to new overlays and interpolations. It also reminds of how those original neuter and complex conditions undersold the status of the vernacular while over-simplifying that of architecture. For in Krauss’s diagrams, mere buildings did not exist as a category; occupying that position was”not-architecture,” from which we infer that which is “not built.” And even though not all buildings are architecture–so much so that architecture’s primary will is to be not-building–Krauss’s complex condition claimed all that is built under its command. That said, we see in Rebuilt Homestead the evidence of a new polarity between a neuter “building” and a complex “not-building,” with the sculpture gravitating strongly towards the complex condition of “not-building” and, in a manner of speaking, towards “architecture.”

Consequently, we are also reminded that while the curatorial text refers to the sculpture’s recasting of “three of the classic elements of architecture–wood, cement and steel,” it is not from actual material that the sculpture derives its force. Rather its engagement with and disturbance of abstract concepts like fixity or repetition exhibits deeper affinities with the medium of “architecture” or “not-building”: that is its idea-driven constitution. In parallel, we are reminded of how the ideation of a compelling architecture is nourished between interdisciplinary elastic affirmations and productive negations, along their oblique vectors, among their overlapping zones where conventionally separate techniques are commingled to effuse unconventional associations and sensations.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, "Collapsed Homestead," 2009. C-print framed by the artist using salvaged wood from the homestead; 16 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist and LA><ART. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

Gregory Michael Hernandez, Collapsed Homestead, 2009. C-print framed by the artist using salvaged wood from the homestead; 16 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist and LA>

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in Hernandez’s instrumentalization of draftsmanship by other means whereby drawing–the classic and exacting mode of architectural projection and constructive instruction–is supplanted by an unfurled, geometrized perspective, which when recombined produces the anexact transposition of its subject and the uncanny co-appearance of two and three dimensions and conditions. For example, we see painterly Op Art techniques instantiated in banal wood frame construction, creating an attenuated, fragile anatomy and producing a vibrant oscillation between the flatness and fullness of a picture plane and a framed wall, as if to foreground visuality within a vital sensorial matrix. We also sense a differential energy, which reconstitutes the kinetic relationship between a building and the sun and renders the sculpture as architecture in place of shadows. Throughout we appreciate Hernandez’s artifice, his calling on varied methods and techniques to work through the real embedment of a found thing’s matter, impregnate it with novel admixtures, and stage with it a new authenticity or powerful expression of a prior status that is both maintained yet figured anew.4

Indeed, this very idea of embedment brings to mind Hernandez’s greatest sleight of hand (and mind and eye), which is the sculpture’s suspension of chronological and historical time, bringing to life what art historians Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood describe as “Plural Temporality” in their book Anachronic Renaissance. With its present embedded in the past, but not suffocated by it, Rebuilt Homestead imbricates innovation and reincarnation, invention and intervention. Echoing the commentary by Nagel and Wood on Paul Valery’s “‘law of continuity’ between things where others see none,” the sculpture is understood as operating on two mutually dependent levels. On one hand, it is part of an ongoing, over-determined “chain of substitutions, one work standing in for the next, not as a historical reality but as a fiction that the artist and a viewing public create backward from present to past,” and on the other hand the sculpture “is the new work that selects the chain out of the debris of the past.”5

So notwithstanding the symbolic undertones of its symmetrical figure and profile, the recuperative thrust of its historical narrative, and the archetypal and seemingly sacral position in the center of the gallery, Hernandez’s imaginative transfiguration exceeds its anonymous and generic provenance and frees both it and the sculpture from the existential weight of originary and essentialist associations, escaping the mawkish sentimentality that often hovers around works invested in memory. Once historically bound, the object is remade anew and set free to construct newly strange and strangely familiar relations and subjectivities. Now otherworldly, it stands spryly without overbearing representational agency. Referencing no rite and no thing, it is an open work, a perceptual apparatus that doubles vision, producing beautifully fictitious moments before and after that one when, as a skeleton heaped in a dilapidated and desiccated pile, Hernandez fixed it in his constructive gaze and proceeded to project for it an other life with its very bones.

Mohamed Sharif is Principal of Sharif Guest Studio, Assistant Chair of Architecture/Landscape/Interiors at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, and a visiting critic at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc).

Footnotes
  1. Lauri Firstenberg, Director/Curator of LAXART
  2. See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994
  3. Despite architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s pithy admonition that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” Hernandez’s intentionally transcendental and designed transformation of the original shed reminds us that a shed and a cathedral are marked by differences in degree and not in kind, and that the pleasures of both the artist and critic are piqued by this spectrum.
  4. View architecture critic Jeffrey Kipnis’s lecture “Discriminations” for a lucid commentary on his term “new authenticities” at http://webcasts.gsd.harvard.edu/gsdlectures/f2006/JKipnis.mov (accessed July 16, 2010).
  5. Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood, Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books, 2010), 11.