Artist Sandeep Mukherjee used only Proctor & Gamble products to work into the thin, tapestry-like painting he made to hang on the metal towel rack in the Gamble house's upstairs bathroom. It was a way to literally interact with the legacy of the Pasadena house, completed in 1909 by architect-brothers Charles and Henry Green for the same Gamble family of Proctor & Gamble fame. The beautifully preserved house is off of Orange Grove and people tour it yearly. “We've interpreted this house as a static work of art traditionally,” says Ted Bosley, a conservation expert and the house's director. This means that, usually, there is not contemporary artwork hanging in the rooms still tastefully furnished with the Gamble's belongings.
But through Oct. 5, as part of Pasadena's AxS festival to celebrate art and science, the Echo Park based alt space Machine Project has filled the Gamble House with extremely contemporary work — Laura Owens finished the painting hanging in the stairwell, which she made to resemble wallpaper because the house has none, just last week. During the next few weeks, there will also be special workshops and tours daily, like ones where artist Ryan Taber focuses specifically on the different species of wood used in stairwells or crawl spaces, and events all day on Sept. 27 and Oct. 5 and an evening of performances on Oct. 2.
“We wanted artists to make works that were directly embedded in the context of the house,” says Mark Allen, Machine's director, who's interested in how artwork can invite viewers to engage with the specific history, look and feel of their surroundings. The most surprising artworks are probably the first two you see when you walk up: There's the hand lettered, orange and blue sign artist Jessica Cowley made for the front lawn that says “Ultimate Bungalow,” because that's what the Green brothers called their bungalow-like, mansion-sized homes like this one. Then there's Patrick Ballard's ear-like, two story tall “swirling mass” that blocks the side porch from view and the has roses from the Gamble family crest painted on it.
Inside, the art gets more subtle. In the guest bedroom, Anna Sew Hoy has installed two geometric “Orbs” on the two twin beds. Neutral-colored, the orbs nicely match the beige bedding. For the entryway, Becky Uchtman and Holly Vesecky, who do floral arrangement, made a “Crane Baron” out of succulents that plays off the rose and crane crest and looks like it's always been there.
Sarah Lorenzen, the architect who directs the Neutra VDL House in Silver Lake, has noticed an uptick in artists being interested in installing work in contexts like historical homes. Most of the artist interventions the VDL house has hosted over the past few years, including one where French artist Xavier Veilhan installed a white gold mobile that caught the light from the wide-open windows Neutra designed, have happened because artists approached her. “It's weird that there's so many of these happening,” says Lorenzen who co-organized a two-day symposium with Bryony Roberts, an architect who hung blue strings all throughout the VDL house last summer. The conference panels will include artists who have worked in historic houses, house directors, curators and critics, and will be held on Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 5, at historic houses around the city: the Schindler King's Road House, the Frank Lloyd Wright Hollyhock House and the VDL house. Allen and Bosley will participate in a Saturday afternoon panel at King's Road to talk about their experience working together at the Gamble House and “animating house museums” in general.
“For me, it's also about questioning attitudes about preservation,” Lorenzen says about the symposium, which is open to the public and organized with the hope of creating something fun as well as informative. “A house has a function and once you remove that purpose, it becomes an object. And that can be odd. It's important to tell stories and understand a particular history [. . ., but a house is a space for things to happen.”
A lot will be happening at the Gamble House on Sept. 27 especially. Poets Dolores Dorantes, Aaron Kunin, Anthony McCann and others will take turns reading one poem at a time to one person at a time in a walk-in closet. The collective Animal Charm will simulate “an extreme and completely artificial sunset,” by projecting lights through the stained glass dining room windows. In the evening, Bob Dornberger's secret restaurant will pop-up in the basement, and the chef will use a conveyor belt to deliver Swiss-Japanse fusion bites to the south kitchen window, because the house was often described as a Swiss-Japanese combo when first built, given the architects' unusual influences. Also in the evening, Anna Sew Hoy's Orbs will be removed from the guest beds and various scholars and creative thinkers invited by essayist Sasha Archibald will take turns climbing into the beds and having on-the-spot-conversations. All conversationalists will wear pajamas.
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