New York

Daniel Joseph Martinez

The Project

Daniel Joseph Martinez’s installation The House America Built, 2004, is spare, quick, and tightly focused. It consists of one oversize, custom-built shack—big enough to house you or me—wedged into the gallery to look as if it had landed there by accident and suffered some damage in the process. Split apart along a seam running from roofline to foundation and no longer standing exactly true, the structure is decidedly out of order. Instead of an open door there are large cracks to peer through. Bobbing up and down and shifting this way and that to get a better view inside is rather like trying to see more than is really visible when you look through the peephole in Duchamp’s Etant donnés, 1946–66. In Martinez’s theater, the interior is entirely off-limits and there’s not a body in sight—except our own.

Completely at odds with the woodsy aesthetic of the building’s rough, unfinished insides, its exterior is clad in colorful, rusticated siding that screams Home Depot in unexpected (and hard to take) shades of sea foam, lime green, sunshine yellow, and mud brown. With its pulsating plastic palette and the comic dimension of mishap, it’s distinctly cartoonish; yet its simplicity is provocative. I found myself thinking of other huts, sheds, rooms, and corridors previously encountered in galleries and museums. Vito Acconci’s crazy-house sculptures, so seriously askew they promise vertiginous thrills to those who take up the invitation to climb inside, came to mind. So did Bruce Nauman’s bare-bones shacks, like Floating Room: Lit from Inside, 1972, constructed from wallboard and two-by-fours. By comparison, Martinez’s cabin is decidedly folkloric and draws us into another sort of name game.

I had a sneaking suspicion that this might be the house that Ted Kaczynski built. Otherwise known as the “Unabomber,” Kaczynski waged a terror campaign against corporate America from a tiny one-room cabin in Montana and, briefly, from the pages of the New York Times, which published excerpts from his anarchist manifesto as a means to aid in his capture. In The House America Built, one folk hero deserves another. It’s no surprise to discover from the press release that, indeed, this is a replica (of sorts) of Kaczynski’s hideout. What’s more, Martinez has given Ted a mate—none other than Martha Stewart, whose K-Mart line of house paints “brightens up” the ersatz dwelling. Could this be an episode on Martha’s upcoming reality TV show? Both folk heroes are homebodies, both are skilled craftsmen, and both are felons. Martha makes Ted clean up his act: They could be America’s favorite new “odd couple,” and Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz could be their daughter. After all, it was little Dot’s shack that was rooted up from Kansas, blown through the air, and crash-landed by the yellow brick road.

Still, I resist Martinez’s intention to animate his symbol-laden sculpture with a sociopolitical critique wrought from the ideological strategies and struggles of a self-proclaimed anarchist and a professional lifestyle diva: Their pairing is worthy of a skit on Saturday Night Live. The artist’s cleverness notwithstanding, The House America Built exhibits the polished air of academic political art. Mix one part irony, one part social conscience; hotwire to extraordinary-looking object; infuse with jumbled historical narrative; and there you have it: smart art that aims to please, earnestly wisecracking about the corruption of the culture and, yet, above it all, too.

Jan Avgikos