Mansion crashers

Contemporary artists sneak mischief into Victoria Mansion
By MARIAH BERGERON  |  April 17, 2014


GHOST OF FURNITURE PAST A modern take on an antique sideboard by Andrew Mowbray.
Photo by J. David Bohl

The sedimentary layers of snow and ice are finally thawing in Portland, revealing a sandy excavation of last fall’s buried coins and lost keys. It’s a passive archeology, with grateful interruptions from this year’s new plant life nudging in. At Victoria Mansion, the city’s Victorian time capsule of upper-class domesticity, restoration and conservation beat back the silt of passing seasons to maintain an illusion of time frozen. However, in the smartly curated "Mansion as Muse: Contemporary Art at Victoria Mansion," the cutting-edge sprouts up around the antique with an invasion of five contemporary artists’ clever site-specific installations.

Touring historic buildings generally suggests the speed of a venerative stroll. The almost prank-like curation of the mansion-wide exhibit drives the pace to the clip of a delicious scavenger hunt. Each room bears foreign or absurd objects attempting to be absorbed by the house, like strangers masquerading at a family reunion. That air of confusion causes a pause, creating the space to linger and question the relationship of these implants in the otherwise pristine décor. Discovering the rogue installations is like sharing a tacit, 21st-century wink with the artists.

The preserved 19th-century Italianate brownstone on Danforth Street oozes opulence, from the trompe-l’œil ceiling murals down to the brocaded foot stools. The entrance is a hush of proper wealth. To the right, in the reception room, the quiet is startled by a giant ghost of furniture past in Andrew Mowbray’s glowing white plastic Victorian cabinet sideboard. The smooth whiteness beams supernatural, an electrically lit futuristic playhouse piece, that displays on its shelves actual remnants of tassels and filigrees from the mansion’s decor trimmings. There’s a sense of a well-intentioned mistake of science, a spaceship’s failed camouflage, or simply a charming fraud.

Rounding the corner to the dining room, the more legitimate sideboards hold a confusion of confection for dessert. At first blush, Mark Dion and Dana Sherwood’s display of many dozens of glittering gelatin molds look more Tiffany than tasty, with the natural window light illuminating the jewel-colored jellies like cut glass. But move in closer and the molds get morbid, having trapped insects to their sticky surfaces. And these molds will mold — a time-lapse property of Sherwood’s many other decay-based food works.

The participating artists themselves were not haphazardly chosen, as their varied concentrations often tackle the subversion or elevation of artifact, display, decay, and archive. Each in effect straddle museum practices; one foot in art, one in natural history.

Justin Richel combines two of his strengths, history and humor, in a series of stone-white, plaster-cast parodies of historic men of reverence. Classic stoic busts become strange with natural festoons: antlers on Verdi, fungal mushrooms on Voltaire, shrubbery atop Offenbach. Pigeons scatter aloft from Goethe’s head in the parlor, as if visitors entering the room startled the resting flock. Schubert fares worse, with two turtle doves marring his forehead with droppings. Richel bases these sculptures on his painting series Big Wigs. The beautifully crafted sculptures are funny and foreboding, serving as a warning that history can decompose if efforts aren’t taken to keep nature at bay.

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