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Islip Art Museum

Working the Rooms

Each year, Islip Art Museum invites artists from across the country—indeed, from across the globe—to submit site-specific proposals for the Carriage House, Long Island's premiere project space. The selected works, always ambitious and often cutting edge, run the gamut from shape-shifting environments to Baroque assemblages, performances, video and film. This year is no exception, as Projects '07 sees the Carriage House reconfigured by the lattice walls, water wheels, grass carpets and puppies that will occupy its venerable halls through October 14th.

Several of the artists selected for this exhibition have been drawn to the physical properties of the Carriage House and its unusual nooks and cutaways, short staircases and ornate vestibules. Pedro Cruz-Castro embeds meaning directly into the wide staircase that leads to the west entrance in his installation Stairs/Chairs. By inserting handmade wooden chairs directly into the steps, Cruz-Castro has drawn attention to a number of cultural idioms, among them "social behavior", "social status" and "social climbing". He has, in his comments, remarked on the way people sit on the stairs to the New York Public Library and the Met and, much like pigeons, this simple activity implicitly refers to a cultural diagram of basic human behavior. Where people sit, how they sit, whom they sit next to and how they spend their moments of leisure coalesce into a cultural Petri dish of social protocol and instinctive behavior.

For Takafumi Ide, his own apprehension of the environment and its psychic properties dictates the approach to creating a work of art. In Butterflies, the artist has attempted to transform the existing room into a psychological portrait of the physical space in which it exists. Here, Ide has erected three minimal window frames on the east wall that replicate the existing architecture. Cantilevered out from their top edges, they instill a quiet imbalance and sense of danger, as if the walls could be gently caving in. At the same time, the room is defined by fugitive voices that emerge from darkness in a pulsing rhythm that is synchronized to the three lights above. Ephemeral and ghostly, the effect is disarming and dimly terrifying.

Quite the opposite experience awaits you in the bay next door where Kimberley Hart has made merry with her alter ego, a puckish young girl whose hobbies include horseback riding, hunting and brazenly manipulating the vast schematics of childhood. The Chase is a playroom gone ballistic as bunnies duck for cover behind the tall trees that dot an immense ear-to-ear photomural of forest. It feels a bit like Hanna-Barbara has staged a reenactment of the 19th century hunting games that might have taken place on the grounds of an English patrician's vast country estate. Instead of hunting fox, however, they are, or at least the children are, hunting bunnies. Since Joseph Bueys, the insatiable fecundity associated with rabbits has lost its innocence to a shrewd and often skeptical art world. A generation ago, Mommy's little fortune lay in the phrase "the rabbit died", meaning, of course, she had a bun in the oven. Not anymore. Rabbits come fully loaded with the cultural analysis childhood, Easter, fertility, reproduction and over population. And so, the hobbyhorses and pull toys (here, in the shape of Beagles) have also grown up, and are now employed in the service of youthful killers who stage elaborate coups designed to entrap animals. Hasn't "Psychology Today" warned us that this is a tell tale sign of trouble on the horizon? And they looked so cute.

Another sort of whimsy exists in the stairwell closet where Taeseong Kim has erected a miniature, multi-leveled environment in his installation titled, Village. Tiny bits of everyday debris take on the idealized characteristics of a utopian world where nothing goes to waste. The delicacy with which Kim assembles these Lilliputian constructions is key to the effectiveness of the piece. They read like a fantastic shantytown—the streets are clean, the urban design is playful and modern, and—best of all, they're filled with affordable housing. Tiny origami shapes, scraps of wood, colorful bits of plastic, skinny tubes and springs, teeny children's toys and cuts-outs, tape pieces and little houses line the paths that weave through this world. Best of all, dozens of miniature ladders connect doorways, windows, pipelines and levels, endowing the environment with a communal sense of wonder and exploration.

Joanne Howard's concerns revolve around the earth's diminishing environment and the fate of the planet. In Oriental Rug, Howard offers a somewhat optimistic view of the future. In gallery 2, grasses and moss seem to have cultivated a refined decorative doggedness that has allowed them to flourish into the pattern of a fine oriental rug. Like the weedy growth that pops up through cracks in an old parking lot, Howard's "carpet" appears to have muscled its way right through the gallery floor in a ghostly homage to William Morris and the Mughal dynasty.

Two artists in particular have dealt directly with the architectural underpinnings of the building. Kirsten Nelson has reordered the structural logic of the cage room in her installation Islip Room Drawing by inserting brief architectural phrases throughout the gallery. Like annotations in the margins of a book, Nelson introduces an alternative narrative that questions the very nature of the bricks and mortar there. It's as if the room itself is daydreaming as its very walls morph by inches into an uncertain future.

For Steven Millar, it is the cubic space that is transformed by the towering wooden pylons that have inserted themselves throughout gallery 3. Suburban Archive is constructed of tiny wooden blocks and Beadboard, the ubiquitous wooden paneling typical of the Victorian Age. But the real story behind this network of linear footage is the urban planning of the town of Islip. Millar has transformed the suburban sprawl and residential roadways as seen by satellite into free standing sculptural maps that portray its housing clusters, apartment complexes, streets and shopping areas. This abstract panoramic view of Islip township seems be growing exponentially right before our eyes, its fingers reaching out from ceiling beams, structural corners and the lateral wood slats that line the gallery walls like pads of legal paper at the ready to notate our local demographics.

Joseph Scinto's Kiosk: Artistic Ingredients 2007 offers a different kind of intimacy that mirrors the exterior and interior of the Carriage House itself. Nestled under the stairwell, a replica of the building sits atop a shingled cube that has been finished in identical cedar siding. The heart of the piece resides inside the cube itself in which two LCD screens reveal footage of the artists who participated in this exhibition. Interviews, installation shots and finished works are viewable upon close inspection, as if staring into the belly of the beast. In Outside In, Ilene Sunshine focuses on the external life of the Carriage House by bringing organic matter into the annex gallery. Huge drawings of vines and twigs erupt out of a grid of electrical conduit that flows throughout the room. The fluorescent lights above are befitted with green gels, and they cast an acidic glow from stem to stern. As if depicting the internal blood system of the building, Sunshine's merger of botanical cuttings with electrical geometry draws a fine line between humankind and nature.

Animated by waterworks, Betsy Alwin's Landscape anxiously spins in the bathroom gallery. The artist has devised an interactive kaleidoscope, the interior chamber of which is illuminated by natural light that is visible through the bathroom window. The interior mirrors reflect stones and soil and plants that were gathered from the natural habitat surrounding the Carriage House. A splashy mechanism drives the chamber to rotate, fueled by the force of tap water that spins a wheel of ice-cream scoops in the same way a current of air turns a windmill. The results are eye-popping and wildly amusing. It's a little bit like Rube Goldberg meets climate change, as if the ferocious spinning were somehow trying to out run the evolution of global warming.

Stephanie Dinkins has created a veritable "wall of words" in homage to Ralph Ellison's legendary novel, Invisible Man. The title of her work, The End is the Beginning, But Lies Far Ahead is an excerpt taken from that text, and has been the primary influence of her installations for nearly a decade. Dinkins' wall is made from pages of the book that have been glued together in a massive, double-sided grid hanging from floor to ceiling. Translucent and diaphanous, the giant curtain serves as a film screen for a video short that is projected across its surface. In it, a female attempts to pass over a chasm by steadying herself on narrow wooden planks that cross the abyss. Windblown, precarious and gripping, the film establishes a sobering metaphor focused on the great cultural divide that faces all people of color in the U.S..

—Janet Goleas