New in Town: Chelsea Galleries by Blair Murphy
At C24 Gallery, Skylar Fein’s The Lincoln Bedroom includes a useful introduction, for visitors who might not be up on historical debates about Abraham Lincoln. It begins:
From 1837 to 1841, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed shared a bedroom. Famously, or infamously, they also shared the bed.
As the introduction explains, historians dismissed the significance of this arrangement for years, insisting it was just a consequence of the scarcity of beds in a small frontier-era town, at a time before physical closeness between men was presumed to indicate a sexual relationship. This explanation has left other historians unconvinced. Fein is less interested in declaring Lincoln’s certain homosexuality than in using the historical fact of his bed-sharing habits and the dismissal of its significance, to explore historical shifts in how we think about gender and sexuality.
The anchor of the exhibition is a physical re-imagining of the famous bedroom. You can walk up a set of stairs and into a re-creation of the room, complete with a hay stuffed mattress on a narrow bed. The actual building that housed Lincoln and Speed’s bedroom was destroyed and there are no available images, so the re-creation was designed based on images of similar buildings from the same time period. As Fein points out, that this building was destroyed, while the house that Lincoln shared with Mary Todd in the beginning of their marriage was preserved, is itself significant. The act of recreating the cabin highlights the way historical knowledge is constricted. Featuring signage that mimics the large didactic text more common in history museums than art galleries, the installation is an attempt to intervene into the creation of history and invite us to consider what we can’t know.
While the recreated cabin is the largest presence in the space, Fein’s other work reaffirms his approach to history, creating a lens through which to read the cabin itself. These other pieces include recreations of actual historical objects and objects meant to appear antique but constructed with anachronistic features. Ice Cold Whiskey Machine appears, at first glance, to be an actual antique. While the object itself is a re-creation, it’s based on an actual whiskey-dispensing machine that was manufactured as late as the 1950’s. On the other hand a sign for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands look as if it could be a historic artifact – until the viewer realizes that the signs is electrically lit, a feature that wouldn’t have been possible during the time when the advertised department existed. Fein’s reproductions of surprising and altered artifacts highlight the difficulty we have in truly understanding the past. There are facts that we can know about history, but our understanding of it is always impacted by our own assumptions and the limitations we place on our investigations of it.