Critical Distance

The Decor Project: White on White: Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens
June 7 – July 5, 2003

a response to the exhibition by Risa Horowitz

It is an odd experience, inviting visitors to my home. When the visit is over, I sometimes find myself wandering through the space wondering how it might appear to an outsider, being accustomed as I am to myself and my ways and unaccustomed as I am to newcomer socializing. This experience has been turned on its head by Hadley and Maxwell’s takeover of my dining room, the necessary prelude to their gallery exhibition The Décor Project: White on White.

White on White is the latest in a series of unconventional projects where collaborators Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens gain entry into the homes of curators in their engagement with matters of artistic and decorative taste. They adopt the fantasies and desires of their host in their critique of contemporary installation, curation and public exhibition. So far, they’ve managed to make it into three homes of artist-run-centre folk*, and hopefully they’ll have the chance to make it into the home of a curator-by-trade, where their ideas and ideals will most fruitfully come to bear ­ but more about this later.

My confession: it has been practically impossible to experience this visit professionally. I’m not a curator: this exhibition at aceartinc. was selected by a peer jury long before my arrival. And the requirements of me have been almost completely personal, from my living environment and creature comforts to the very core of my own art practice.

Hadley and Maxwell requested I provide them with a photo survey of my home, which I share with Todd Blackman, a graduate student in the School of Architecture, University of Manitoba. I also responded to their questionnaire about our home, my artistic tastes and living habits. Through these means the artists devised their plan to transform our living room into an architectural-like model [as if built by a student] in white, reflecting both Todd’s vocation and my own.

This required a degree of trust, with months spent anticipating the occupation, negotiating the use of space with the artists and my roommate, and living with the uncertainty about whether my survey responses would ellicit a site-specific installation that I would love or hate. Hadley and Maxwell asked for this trust, and taking a back seat meant giving up a certain control, the kind that curators have in defining the content of exhibitions, and, sometimes, artworks themselves. It also meant I became unwittingly involved in a creative collaboration where the work seemed to be as much about me and my roommate as about the artists and the self-reflexive mode in which they work.

The result was a sweet, clean space that ran contrary to all my instincts about practical living, was as completely dysfunctional as the best of object d’art, and breathtakingly beautiful.

Hadley and Maxwell spent five days at play creating White on White. Their tools: the objects in the dining room, utility knives, glue, rulers and a whole lot of white foam core. Everything in the room was fitted and dressed in its new shell – sometimes more than once, like the radiator that threatened mutiny yet ultimately succumbed. I moved things out of the artists way, tried to be helpful, tried to stay out of their way, and got to play a bit, too, before the set was ready for the photo-shoot.

Hadley and Maxwell will be quick to point out that the work itself is the photo documentation of the home installation. The 17 images were made by co-collaborator Sven Boecker in one day [05.27.03], every hour on the hour, from sunrise until sunset, with the artists sanding and repainting the time of day between photographs. The work is intricately implicated by their collaborative choices: building a life-size model for Todd; adopting my repetitive, endurance oriented studio practices and aesthetic; contracting an outside hand to make the photographs; quietly giving and receiving unspoken instructions between themselves. It’s important to be aware that Hadley and Maxwell are from Vancouver, and have clearly been influenced by the postmodern photorealism so prevalent there over the past 20 years. There is a little bit of Jeff Wall, Ken Lum, Geoffrey Farmer, Kelly Wood and Damian Moppett in their work: mimicry, fabrication and cool.

Hadley and Maxwell perform a little double-take: they ask their host to give up control and trust, but ultimately subsume, relegate, make lesser or lesser apparent their own tastes by choosing to behave narcissistically, to appropriate process, style, appearance and context in the creation of their own productive identity. This conscientious willingness to give up authorship and be influenced and shaped in their collaborations is impressive, and the opposite of what is expected. It reminds me of the collaborations between Marina Abramovic and her audience, or with Ulay, where she gives up control intentionally, and therefore always has it, in a way.

In the end, my experience with Hadley and Maxwell has been less of the occupation or takeover that I feared, and has felt more like a complete honour paid by them to me in my role as hostess. Which brings me back to their original proposal, to enter the homes of curators and to re-frame art, décor, curatorial choices, tastes and authority. Artist-run-centre folk present different norms than do curators-by-trade: we are artists who are administrators who sometimes curate, mostly facilitate, and rarely have the power or influence of curators in larger public galleries and museums. I hope there’s a curator out there who will trust them with this smart, thoughtful and brilliantly planned and executed Project Series.

* Jonathan Middleton, Western Front, Vancouver, for Project: BILLY [2002] and David LaRiviere, Artspace, Peterborough, for Project: Sandman [2003].

Hadley Howes and Maxwell Stephens have worked as collaborators for seven years. Risa Horowitz is the Programming Coordinator at aceartinc.