A cabinet of curiosities in a cabin

The Lynden Sculpture Garden is an imaginative place, with gently rolling and slightly wild lawns. Groves of tall trees and secluded benches nestle among the monumental modern sculptures that dot the estate. Until Oct. 30, look closely for the newest addition to the garden, a small house hidden off the beaten path and filled with artifacts that thread together history, artistry and contemporary mythology.

The installation is called Eliza’s Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities, and while it is described as an installation, it really is an enveloping structure. Artist Fo Wilson created the small cabin and its contents as a way of imagining the living quarters of a slave woman in the 19th century — a structure of imagination. It draws from the model of the wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. These types of displays were popular ways of showing exotic or unusual pieces, perhaps gained through travels or trade.

The inhabitant of the cabin, Eliza, is a fictional person. The exhibition text describes the installation’s ambitions, as “it imagines what a 19th-century woman of African descent might have collected, catalogued and stowed in her living quarters. What did she find curious about the objects and culture of her European captors? Southern plantation life? The natural world around her?”

Wilson is a Chicago-based artist with a strong background in graphic design who earned an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied many areas, including furniture design. Her approach to art continued developing there, and as she described to The International Review of African American Art, she “constructed space and furniture forms to create experiences that reposition historical objects and/or aesthetics in a contemporary context and offers audiences new ways of thinking about and interacting with history.”

This strategy is very much part of the Eliza project, as it combines architecture with a potent and interesting mix of artifacts.

EXPLORING THE CABIN

An interior shot of Lynden Sculpture Garden’s installation Eliza’s Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities.
An interior shot of Lynden Sculpture Garden’s installation Eliza’s Peculiar Cabinet of Curiosities.

The cabin can be hard to find. Check the maps at the front desk or ask the gallery attendant. Over the footbridge and through the wood — and there it is.

The cabin is not large. A long ramp makes the building accessible to all, and a small porch with a chair is like a warm invitation to come in. To be in the building, however, is not necessarily to be enclosed. One wall is open, framed out with beams that create resting places for figures in bell jars.

This cabinet of curiosities comprises over 100 pieces, some in display cases, others simply set around the small pieces of furniture.

There are utilitarian objects like a wooden bucket, but look more closely and discover that the water within, created by video projection, is a rushing stream. Taking this vignette closer to nature are the turtle shells resting around it on the floor.

One wall is papered with photographs of people, with musical instruments attached. Other surprising twists include an action figure of Princess Leia from Star Wars. This artifact from the 1980s is mixed with 19th-century pieces and references. The ceiling is covered with copies of a document, the looping antique script repeated over and over. It is a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation.

There are things that would have been freely available to Eliza, but other objects like elegantly framed photographs and contemporary plastic pieces stretch the air of authenticity. So how are these pieces to be understood? One way of considering this is as a cabinet of possibilities and interests. If Eliza were a real person, but free from the restrictions of slavery, perhaps her home and her collections represent her interests as a free and fully self-actualized person.

RE-CONTEXTUALIZATION

A companion exhibition indoors in the main house at the Lynden suggests these notions as well. P.S. I Love You is a series of postcards from the early 20th century that depicted African-American servants in the South in a manner that was at once sentimental and oblivious to reality. One example is an image of four children sitting on a broad wooden porch. The caption beneath reads “Four Little Pickaninnies, New Orleans, LA.” Wilson alters the images by collage and mixed media, changing the clothing and furniture, and re-contextualizing these images that romanticized the disenfranchisement of African Americans. It is a reminder of how these stereotypes proliferated through commercial media, but also how individual actions can serve to disrupt hegemonic narratives.

NEW EXHIBITIONS

Drawing, Broadly Speaking: Some Current Tendencies in the Oldest Art’

Dean Jensen Gallery , 759 N. Water St. • Exhibition continues through Sept. 24

There is no one among us who has not made a drawing at some time, whether absently doodling or commitedly studying the practice of making lines. It is indeed one of the oldest forms of art. This exhibition features regional and nationally recognized artists conveying the world and ideas through simple and complex strokes.

‘Young and Erie’

Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., 5th Floor • Exhibition continues through Aug. 28

The name of the exhibition is a unique play. Does it speak about weirdness and youth? Maybe — but that may be in the eye of the beholder. The title has to do with the streets that surround various art schools and the works on view from recent graduates. Check out the next generation of emerging artists and some dramatic takes on contemporary art.