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Gallery View: Artist in wonderland

Biff Henrich

Dennis Maher is wearing a dark blue robe and slippers as he answers the door of his Fargo Street house for our scheduled 10 a.m. appointment. His black hair is tousled, and it’s apparent that I’ve roused the internationally noted artist from his bed.

Apologetically, Maher explains that he spent most of the night driving home from New York City. The University at Buffalo clinical assistant architecture professor has been in near perpetual motion in recent months as he prepares for a soon-to-open major exhibition at the Albright Knox Art Gallery (see below). But even in his current sleep-deprived state, the amicable Maher is gracious; “Come in and look around,” he says, swinging the door open and making a hasty retreat upstairs.

Looking around is why I’m here. It’s what visitors do. The house is a living monument to the adage that outward appearances can be deceiving. From the street, the only hint of anything out of the ordinary is a striped pattern sanded into the house’s fascia and a few parallelograms of lighter paint on the otherwise monochromatic clapboard. Hardly notable.

Inside, it’s another story. Here is an architectural wonderland where no structural surface has escaped transformation. Fanciful sculptural elements occupy every wall and a good part of the ceilings and floors. Some are freestanding; many are incorporated into the house as if the building itself absorbed the contents of a thrift shop. This is a place where the word “flat” has no relevance.

Original surfaces are stripped away in geometric layers that visually behave like abstract paintings. Everywhere are familiar things: bamboo birdhouses, architect models, train accessories, toys, doll houses, full scale architectural remnants, and navigation globes. All are assembled into elaborate structures that often make it difficult to distinguish where the house ends and art begins. It’s too much to absorb quickly—a sensory overload.

In a few minutes, Maher reappears in jeans and a sweat shirt. Abruptly, we are off on a whirlwind tour while the artist expounds on the underlying theory behind this architectural funhouse. “I’m interested in the tension between destruction and preservation, and I actually think of the house as a place where those two things are in conflict with each other,” he says. “There’s an attempt to bring to the fore certain objects which have their own histories and associations, and have come from very far-reaching places at times, with their own suggestive qualities, and I’m interested in celebrating that. But at the same time, I’m interested in change, adaptation, and transformation.”

The house was slated for demolition—stripped and looted of saleable materials—when Maher bought it three years ago. Some of the holes looters punched into the walls form the basis of one wall assemblage. “This wall began very simply as a series of excavations into the existing wall coverings,” explains Maher, “so there are about six or seven different layers. What I am interested in is exposing pieces and textures of the place, but also intensifying those things by covering up related areas. Over time, I started thinking of the house as having this quality of masking and enabling. This is a very different idea about what a wall is; that’s for sure.”

The art historical antecedents of the Fargo House—Maher’s name for his live-in art project—include Russian Constructivists like Vladimir Tatlin and El Lissitzky. Another major influence is Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Maher refers to the Fargo House as a “post-industrial “Merzbau,” the name Schwitters gave to his radically sculptured architectural interiors. Gordon Matta-Clark’s An Architecture, in which the artist deconstructed buildings as art, provides another precedence. And there’s a bit of the Neo-Dadaist wit and painterly expressiveness of Robert Rauschenberg at work here too.

But Maher isn’t thinking of his house as a static work of art. It’s more of a laboratory, or, better, a living organism that absorbs discarded materials through creative grafting. Then, like any organism, it produces offspring. “Sometimes, when I do exhibitions in galleries, pieces go away and don’t come back,” he says. This in turn frees up space for new objects. Maher even talks about the house in biological terms: “It’s necessary to fuel the project and fuel the house, and there’s a pulse, so things have to come in and be absorbed and digested, and that’s all part of the project. Maher spends at least an hour each day gathering “fuel” for his house, which he never intends to “complete.” “I’m interested in the unfinished project and of maintenance as a project,” he notes.

Dennis Maher's living work-in-progress. Photo by Biff Heinrich.

Maher makes extensive use of cut-up and reassembled dollhouses and other architectural models. “I find dollhouses and I think of them as miniature versions of abandoned houses in the city,” he explains. “And I bring them in and reconstitute them and I make fantastical wallscapes utilizing their pieces.”  Maher also produces discrete sculptural works as part of his art practice, ranging from moderate-sized floor constructions, to massive room-dominating assemblages of salvaged architectural material. Some of those are here, too.

We walk across a second floor causeway open on either side to the room below. “It looks more precarious than it is through here,” Maher states reassuringly. He motions toward the exposed supporting floor beams: “You can see that none of the structure has been removed.” Maher—who views himself as both architect and visual artist with no separation between the two roles—sees two competing processes at work in the house: “On the one hand there is this idea of continually aggregating things, and, on the other hand, taking things away and removing and revealing. So I’m interested in the space that happens in between.”

We enter the kitchen, which for functional reasons is sparser than other parts of the house. The floor is comprised of irregular bits of linoleum clinging to the largely exposed two-toned wood subfloor, all sealed in varnish. I mention that it reminds me of an abstract painting. “Well you’re onto me, because I tell you, I’ve always wanted to be a painter, but somehow it comes out as something else. I practiced making paintings on canvas, but it came to a point where I realized I needed matter; I needed stuff, things to build the layered vision that I have. But I still have the eye and the ambition to create more painterly artifacts.”

A two-room walk-in closet with a loft comprised of wood boxes, closet-like screens, and wardrobes from bygone eras. I ask Maher whether the house is comfortable, and he responds philosophically: “The kind of lifestyle that’s enabled by the house is very different than one might usually think of. I’m interested in a house that basically corresponds to the psyche. Less about function and more about psychological material and a slightly urbanistic idea of living.”

Maher hopes the house will eventually be used for architecture residencies, a nurturing environment for the artistic spirit. “I want to think of this place as a residency center for creative people who could come to Buffalo and do projects in the city or on the house.”  He has plans to make an art gallery in the house. In conjunction with his Albright-Knox project, Maher invited in tradespeople, and he is working with the museum’s education department and students from Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts who are making a video to be included in Maher’s exhibition.

Engaging others in the process seems to be as much a part of the project as the physical house itself. As Mahar says, “There isn’t an attempt to create an environment to make things or people stay, but it’s more like design to make people and ideas move through. So I have tours; I invite people over; I bring objects in; I bring them out. The house was never really conceived as a place where you just go ‘ahhh,’ rather as a space where things are in motion and more restless.” Like the artist himself.     


House/Art: Dennis Maher at the Albright-Knox

Since last August, artist, educator, and architect Dennis Maher has been working intently toward the January 26 opening of his multilayered residency exhibition titled Dennis Maher: House of Collective Repair. Maher is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s second artist-in-residence, following the 2008–2009 stay of Ingrid Calame. Maher’s exhibition will utilize reclaimed building materials to create an installation that explores demolition, renovation, and restoration. That much is par for the artist who combines architecture and civic activism in his art. As part of this residency, Maher will also engage the community-at-large in a variety of capacities.

“That’s one of the ideas behind the project,” explains Maher, “to invite people into the [Fargo Street] house to think of it as a creative catalyst, so I’m working with tradespeople who don’t have an art background, but they have training in making things.” The eight selected skilled workers include experts in flooring, painting, contracting, masonry, roofing, and more. “I’ve asked them to respond to the house by basically making a model of it in small scale, but they can only use materials that are germane to their trade.”

Maher stresses that these will not be literal models of the ongoing artwork he calls home, noting, “So it becomes an interpretation or response to this environment—the way things are made inside—filtered through their materials, their means of working, and their imagination. What you’ll see are nine vignettes that invoke the house in various capacities.” Maher will include these works in a larger assemblage installation of his own making that “filters and focuses the eye and the view upon those particular artifacts and incorporates them within a larger environment.”

There have already been opportunities for the community to participate through M&T First Fridays at the Gallery, with more planned throughout the residency, which continues through May 12. The Albright-Knox website mentions site visits, artist visits, gallery and community workshops, school projects, and more. A full listing of related events can be found on the museum’s website, albrightknox.org.       

Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer living in Buffalo.

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