In his 2013 book Visual Time, art historian Keith Moxey writes, “Visual objects disturb and disrupt chronology rather than organize it.” He argues that works of art must be understood in terms of two temporal axes: heterochrony and anachrony. Heterochrony can be understood as the awareness that there are multiple narratives that exist in any given time – that “there is no natural hierarchy of times.”Anachrony asserts that the meaning carried by a work of art is shaped not only by its relationship to the time of its origin, but also by its relationship to the viewer’s time. The past shapes the present, but the present also shapes the past (and therefore the art). Time in this view is neither singular nor linear. There is not one narrative, but many. The artwork’s meaning is not fixed for all time, like a specimen in a jar. It is alive and evolving.
These two temporal axes intersect powerfully in the current exhibition on the second floor of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. Curated by Kekeli Sumah, ‘A Tale of Today: Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi’ inserts the work of two contemporary Chicago artists into the context of the restored Gilded Age mansion of a 19th century banker and his family. In lieu of the familiar figure/ground relationship in which works of art are displayed in the white cube of the art gallery, the work here is site-specific and interacts slyly with the historic setting, inviting viewers to interpret and reinterpret their relationship to the house and the times of which it speaks.
The Driehaus Museum is a house museum of a type that will be familiar to many. Referred to in the press as “the Marble Palace” when it was completed in 1883, the house was built to be the home of Samuel and Matilda Nickerson and their children Adelaide and Roland, and to display the Nickersons’ art collection. Like many such museums, it tells a story focused primarily on the owners of the home. This story features the extraordinary richness and craftsmanship of the home’s decoration: walnut paneling, coffered and painted ceilings, Low Art ceramic tiles, finely crafted furniture by some of the leading designers of the Aesthetic Movement, an art gallery illuminated by a stained-glass dome. The rooms on the first floor also display a small portion of the Nickersons’ art collection: American and European paintings and sculptures, as well as sculptural works from Japan and China. In 1900, The Nickersons donated much of their collection to the Art Institute of Chicago and left Chicago permanently, selling their home to Lucius G. Fisher and his wife Katherine Eddy Fisher.
On the second floor, in what were once the family’s bedrooms, other stories emerge as we encounter the works of Nate Young and Mika Horibuchi. The encounter is a slow one, in small part because of the capacity limits and the need to direct the flow of foot traffic in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but to a greater degree this is due to the scrupulously deliberate and measured placement of the work among the Nickersons’ furnishings.
Beginning in the northeast corner, one enters Adelaide Nickerson’s bedroom. Suspended from a cornice on the entrance wall is Nate Young’s sculpture Untitled, a finely crafted sycamore cabinet resembling a bedside table. Its coffered panels and carved details echo precisely, though in lighter wood, the design of the cabinet surrounding the fireplace on the opposite wall. A dark cavity in the sculpture houses a haunting holographic image of a bone – perhaps a horse’s vertebra. On another wall is Flash of Perception, a painting consisting of a matte black script on a semi-gloss black ground. The text, though difficult to read, is legible and begins, “Is this life my own or is there a bitter truth to my persistent suspicion.” One has to move about in relation to the surface glare in order to make out the full text, but even then it remains cryptic. We learn from a wall text that the artist’s great-grandfather, William Nathaniel Jackson, rode his horse from North Carolina to Philadelphia during the Great Migration, that the horse died and was buried, that Jackson committed suicide, that he left a note. We read that this happened “during the tail end of the Fisher family’s occupancy of the Nickerson Mansion.” The room acquires more occupants, and the time becomes more complex.
Nate Young has made similar interventions in two other rooms on the east side of the house, and the same elements – the note, the horse bones, the meticulous emulation of period woodwork – recur in varied configurations. His works reward slow and careful attention, and they invite repeated viewing over an extended time. His sculpture Time Travel is a working pendulum clock in a mahogany case whose fluted pilasters, decorative mouldings, and recessed panels again echo the room’s décor. In the dark space behind the swinging brass pendulum, we glimpse another ghostly image of a horse bone. The clock appears to tell time, but the second hand spins counterclockwise. Young disturbs and disrupts chronology to tell multiple narratives that move freely through time: forward, backward, back and forth.
Crossing the wide hall to the west side of the house, one enters Mr Nickerson’s former bedroom, where Mika Horibuchi’s works are almost, but not quite, camouflaged. In the center of the room, a Neo-Empire armchair (ca. 1883) and a Renaissance Revival table sit atop Mr Nickerson’s Carpet, a painting by Horibuchi in oil on unstretched linen that rests like a rug on the floor, though slightly elevated as if floating on a hidden platform. The pattern of Horibuchi’s ‘carpet’ mimics that of the bedroom’s decorative ceiling, though the color palette of pale blue-greens, white and tan, with dark grey-green accents appears calculated to contrast with the sombre browns and golds of the room. This piece also obliquely references the room’s walls, covered in recessed canvas panels stenciled with a pattern of rampant lions and floral motifs. On the table sits Signed Samuel M. Nickerson, a painting on shaped panel that suggests a book or journal. In a corner of the room is a label-stand nearly identical to those used by the museum for exhibition didactics. This stand, however, holds a painting in the form of a didactic label, with a portrait bust of Mr Nickerson in grisaille accompanied by blank grey text boxes, as if the text has been redacted.
Horibuchi works in the tradition of trompe-l’oeil painting. More accurately, she references the practices of trompe-l’oeil while gently bending the form to question the veracity and interpretation of images. Her style is illusionistic, but it is flattened just enough to give away the deception, forcing the awareness that her paintings are not what they initially appear to be. Far from disappearing into a perfectly eye-fooling illusion, her quasi-counterfeit book, carpet, and label all combine to make our attention to the particulars of the exhibition more acute. This intentional betrayal of the form – the refusal to create a completely seamless illusion – opens up a gap between expectation and experience, and Horibuchi uses this gap to focus our attention on what we see and on what we don’t see. In this instance, she complicates the very practices of museum presentation in order to uncover histories that are easily overlooked in the familiar, dominant narrative.
This is perhaps best understood in the final room of the exhibition. It, too, is an ornate bedroom. Six museum label stands are evenly spaced along the room’s four walls. One of these explains that this was the bedroom of Roland Nickerson, and goes on to describe the features of the room: maple wainscoting, canvas wallcovering with stenciled floral pattern, fireplace decorated with ‘Japanesque’ tiles of English manufacture reflecting the Nickersons’ interest in both European and Asian decorative arts. The other five stanchions support paintings in the form of exhibition didactics. Each of these depicts blank grey text boxes on a white ground and a single image representing an item from the Nickersons’ collection of East Asian antiquities displayed on a graduated grey ground. The objects depicted here no longer reside in the mansion, as the Nickersons donated them to the Art Institute of Chicago. Each painting is titled after the museum’s description of the object depicted: ‘Small Covered Oblong Box,’ ‘Covered Box in the Form of a Peach,’ ‘Netsuke in the Shape of a Rabbit,’ etc. One might read these paintings as remembrances of objects that are now absent. This is part of the story, but not all of it. Further complicating the narrative is the fact that these paintings don’t depict their titular objects directly. Instead, each painting depicts the object as it appears in a photograph taken for the purposes of museum collections documentation. What, then, is the subject of these works? Is it the story of the Nickersons, or that of the objects themselves, or that of the museums that collect and display them? Or perhaps it is a nexus of all these stories combining to reflect the role played by culture and identity in determining what is valuable and what is seen.
What is the job of a museum? The story it tells? Whose time is represented? In a brief video accompanying the exhibition, Nate Young states, “Craft is skill, and skill is time.” Both Young and Horibuchi use skill-based crafts in their work. Like the objects displayed throughout the house, their artworks reflect a human investment of time and touch. In this way, they speak to the house and its history in its own language, cracking open its time in a way that permits us to see relationships that we’ve long known but rarely examined in this context.
The temptation of a museum like the Driehaus is that it will tell a simple story: that it will look only backward and only at a very limited part of the picture. To its credit and benefit, the museum has welcomed the multiplicity of narratives that artists like Young and Horibuchi introduce. These counterpoints to the dominant narrative succeed in making the story of the house and its time more relevant to our own.
Volume 36 no 1 September / October 2021