Structures that bend with imagination
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 28, 2011
At first glance, the exhibition at the Greater Reston Arts Center looks like it might have gotten waylaid trying to get to the National Building Museum.
The space is filled with renderings of buildings and what look like miniature architectural models. One model is not even all that miniature. At seven feet wide, 12 feet deep and six feet tall, the one-quarter-scale model of a Sears bungalow is larger than a lot of cars.
But the show - called "Until Every Shape Has Found Its City" after a line from Italo Calvino's novel "Invisible Cities" - isn't really about architecture. At least not the kind you live in. The product of sculptor Evan Reed's rich imagination and deftness as a fabricator, the show is about the kind of spaces you're meant to dream - or to have nightmares - in.
Take the artist's "October Hive," a six-foot-wide hanging sculpture that resembles eight wooden bird cages that have been nailed together in a ring. In the center, there's an empty courtyard of sorts, surrounded by a circular - or, rather, octagonal - hallway that opens onto each of the eight jaillike cells.
For that's exactly what this piece is: a prison. Based on 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon - a building meant for use as an asylum, poorhouse or jail and designed to facilitate the surveillance of its inmates - "October Hive" inspires paranoia, claustrophobia and wonder all at once. Even though you inhabit it with your mind, not your body, it's an eerily potent space.
Another trippy work is Reed's aptly titled "Plan and Frame to Confuse." Mounted on top of five drafting tables, it looks like a post-hurricane pileup resulting from the collision of nine unfinished dollhouses. (As with "Hive" and the Sears bungalow, its walls are open wooden framing, allowing viewers, in essence, to look straight through it. Other pieces have finished walls.)
Evoking the famous Winchester Mystery House in California, Reed's piece is a jumble of crazy angles and superimposition. The nine houses are not just piled one atop the other, but inside one another. As a structure, it's confusing, but it also has a beautiful open-endedness. Unlike "Hive," looking at it seems to liberate fancy, instead of imprisoning it. It's impossible, yet bursting with possibility.
That's really the level on which Reed's art works - as a series of mental, not physical spaces.
In one sense, his pieces can't help but evoke the familiar: a futuristic skyscraper; a scary blind alley; the house you grew up in. Just as you start to think you might recognize where you are, though, the artist undermines that recognition by introducing an element of distortion.
Reed's sculptures may have the form and solidity of architecture, but the landscape that they're built on - one of memory and emotion - is made of shifting sand.
The Story Behind the Work
Evan Reed has been inspired by architecture from around the world. But one of the most evocative works in "Until Every Shape Has Found Its City" is based on an old Fairfax County whiskey distillery that dates from before Reston was Reston.
The site-specific "A Corner for Gaston and Gonzalo" takes its tall, stacked-shoe-box shape from the Bowman Distillery, a landmark 19th-century building at 1875 Old Reston Ave. It also takes part of its name from where Reed has installed it: pressed right up against the gallery's corner window, like a dog with its nose to the glass.
But there are other implications to the title, both literal and figurative. Reed has cut an alcove into the structure, evoking both the cutaway niches one sees in sculptor Gozalo Fonseca's artworks around Reston's Lake Anne and philosopher Gaston Bachelard's "Poetics of Space," which includes a whole chapter on corners. "Every corner in a house . . . is a symbol of solitude for the imagination," Bachelard wrote.
Reed's sculpture similarly engages the imagination. On the side facing the window, there's a round hole cut into one wall, right where the old distillery has an oculus, or circular window.
Here, however, that hole acts like the aperture of a giant camera. In the alcove on the other side of the sculpture there's an etched glass plate, like a camera's LED screen. On it you can see an image of Il Fornaio restaurant across the street from the gallery, transporting you from the inside of the gallery out, and between the present and the past.
-- Michael O'Sullivan