New York

James Casebere

Vrej Baghoomian Gallery

The scenes that James Casebere builds and then photographs have always seemed underdetermined, whitewashed and so starkly lit that it is difficult to tell how big they are or what kind of space they occupy. Though the models are in fact quite small, Casebere has recently turned to making sculptures that, by contrast, are enormous. The two room-size works exhibited here together with four prints and one light box offer a continuation of Casebere’s spare reconstructions of the past—dreams of 19th-century American living spaces, and of the peculiarly American way they have been swept away.

The pictures combine elements from a domesticated Old West—corrals, gates, a kitchen window, a pine tree, a deck—bleached of their colors, deeply shadowed, and stripped of any human presence, so that they look like empty stage sets or ghost towns. Traces of their former inhabitants—a bowl or cup, a canoe—serve only to underscore their emptiness. Only in the sculpture that mirrors their forms does the shift in history that left these rooms abandoned become apparent. Western Sculpture with Two Wagons and Cannon, 1987, a huge jumble of oversized debris that includes barrels, wheels, and a saddle, all pierced with giant arrows, seems less a remark about Indian villainy than a reminder that our country was built on this and other genocides—that the legacy of brute conflict, upheaval and displacement remains central to the American psyche. The piece is an elegy to a long-gone past that continues to undermine the present.

Tree Trunk with Broken Bungalow and Shotgun Houses, 1989, is even richer in its implications. Made for a Florida exhibition, it’s an enormously powerful portrayal of a wave tearing through a full-size mock-up of a pair of shacks of the sort inhabited by poor laborers during the latter part of the last century. Between the houses stands a tree, stylized in contrast to the literal construction of the bungalows. Casebere has an extraordinary sense of both sculptural structure and narrative drama, and the moment that he has chosen to show here is exquisitely balanced; it is the instant of initial impact when the frames of the houses are just beginning to buckle and collapse. It is possible nonetheless to make out their former structures from the half-toppled remains. Through the windows one can glimpse the wave itself, a dark lip of wood that pushes up the floorboards, and by circling around the back one can see the scattered debris of the owner’s possessions. The tree alone remains standing.

It is, so the artist suggests, our common fate to live in these houses, always unsure of ourselves, our surroundings and our institutions; always caught off guard, our homes no longer homes. The repercussions are both individual and collective, a reminder both of our individual histories and of our collective past, and of those singular moments when the safe ground of our lives necessarily gives way beneath us.

James Lewis