By Melissa Ragona
Bent is an uncanny topology. It points to nomadic materials, shifting sites and social confrontations. Pairing as it does two of Brian Tolle’s signature architectural projects, Eureka (2000) and Levittown (2009), Bent aims to re-stage the questions that initially led Tolle to these works: how has the social contract been negotiated and/or manipulated through city planning? What role does design play in terms of delivering the illusion of social democracy? How is nostalgia used as a medium to resurrect the fiction of a utopian past?
Originally commissioned by Jan Hoet as a site-specific installation in Ghent, Belgium, Eureka (2000) is a fabrication of a 36 foot high facade of a 17th century Flemish canal house whose surface incorporates the wave structures found in the water that laps up against its original foundation.
One of the design queries initially posed by Tolle Studio was what would brick look like if it could behave like water? Or how could something solid, suddenly behave as if it were a liquid? In other words, how might stability and duration, suddenly become erratic and temporal? Indeed, Tolle’s façade commented critically on other forms of architectural artifice found along the canal—the Baroque and Gothic features of many canal houses had, in fact, been cobbled together from more grand structures found throughout the city. Through a sleight of hand, these more decorative pieces were clandestinely incorporated into the drab canal houses, transforming them into gleaming artifacts of a fictional, illustrious past.
Similarly, Tolle’s Levittown exposes the chicanery of a particular social housing scheme. However, this one was presented—several hundred years later—in America. The original Levittown also banked on nostalgia, but instead of referencing gilded empires, William Levitt used thousands of simple Cape-Cod style houses to intone the idyllic, hard-working colonial homesteads that were originally erected and refined on Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro, Massachusetts. The aura around them not only evinces a pioneering work ethic, but the bucolic — the idea of a house, nestled in the countryside with fresh air, friendly wild life, and nuclear families frolicking in the sun.
However, the Levittown that Tolle points to in his sculptural series is one that was full of collapsed dreams (Tolle’s deflated house skins nod to this), bigotry, and suburban sprawl. Launched in 1947, over a thousand homes were sold in the first three hours. Only white families, predominantly WW II veterans, could purchase these compact dreams. Moreover, the engineering behind them was informed by military expertise, i.e. Levitt had served in the Navy’s service construction battalions, perfecting the mass-produced structures that were uniform and used interchangeable parts as their trademark. To boot, the particular group of houses that Tolle investigates in Levittown were built on acres and acres of ravaged Long Island potato fields—hearkening back to his earlier monumental work, the Irish Hunger Memorial (2002). Long Island’s blight was not nearly as devastating as the Irish Potato Famine, but had similar economic and political consequences. He addresses the displacement of Long Island potato farmers specifically in Phytophthora Infestans in both title and visual cue—the former, refers directly to the amoeba protozoa that caused the potato disease, while the latter is illustrated by one of the Levittown house models draped over an overturned wheelbarrow of potatoes.
Each of the eleven Levittown sculptures snipes at disturbing aspects of the initial housing experiment: conformity (TrimCycle, Vanitas Vanitatum, Father Knows Best, Mobile), anti-semitism —despite the fact that Levitt was Jewish—(Jerusalem Avenue), the pervasiveness of teenage drug abuse (Go Ask Alice), fraternal authority (Loyal Order), and the hypocrisy of making these homes, like the flag, a badge of courage for often wounded and disabled war veterans (Out of Service, Old Glory). A work in the Rennie Collection, Covenant, directly addresses the structural racism of the Levittown project. It depicts a brown house cloaking an outdated porcelain drinking fountain whose water line extends from a gleaming stainless steel chilled drinking fountain—a depiction of segregated, unequal public facilities for African and White Americans, respectively. While Levitt argued that his major funder, the Federal Housing Authority, mandated this “covenant,” he willingly included the same precept in his leases, barring those who were not “member(s) of the Caucasian race.”
The power of Tolle’s exhibition Bent is the rich, complex histories and research that inform each project and the impeccable attention to detail that Tolle Studio (which includes the gifted designer, Brian Clyne) gives to each sculpture, i.e. the goal for Eureka was not just to deliver a representation of flowing water or paint a trompe l’oeil, but to enact a point by point simulation of wave behavior within the material of brick. Likewise, in the initial process of making Levittown, Tolle traveled to the Town of Hempstead, Long Island in order to study the mass-produced houses —actually knocking on doors and asking homeowners if he could measure their doorknockers, windows and chimneys. By mimicking the cookie-cutter uniformity of Levittown with the highest of production values, so that the colors and forms almost radiate “happiness”—Tolle’s work shows the dramatic failure such American dreams suffered in their attempts to cloak, indeed repress the violence, poverty, and xenophobia that lurked at the heart of ideas about property, public space, and familial well being. By theorizing the notion of façade at all levels — stretching it, warping it, bending it, crumpling it, invading it, laying it on its back—Tolle creates, like Warhol, a new depth to surface. He also jumps across history, as well as different cultures in this exhibition —forcing viewers to think both diachronically (within the sequential and cyclical time of history), as well as synchronically or “all at once” at the structures of architecture, community, and commerce.
Melissa Ragona is an Associate Professor of Critical Theory and Art History in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University as well as an independent curator and critic. Her book, Readymade Sound: Andy Warhol’s Recording Aesthetics, is forthcoming from University of California Press. Her essays and reviews have appeared in October,Frieze, Art Papers and numerous edited collections. She has also published in monographs on the work of artists, Heike Mutter, Ulrich Genth, Christian Jankowski, Carolee Schneemann, Paul Sharits, and Antoine Catala. Ragona has curated exhibitions and served as a curatorial consultant at various venues throughout the US, including the Mattress Factory Contemporary Art Museum (Pittsburgh), the Miller Gallery (Pittsburgh), PPOW Gallery (New York), as well as the Museum of Modern Art (New York). She has lectured on experimental film, sound, performance and installation at Yale University, Princeton University, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, Freie Universität Berlin, as well as The Academy of Fine Arts (KUVA) in Finland, and other venues both nationally and internationally.