Essay by Lisa Crossman
As a fleeting signpost between the past and the present, The Uncanny Home of Our Imagination experiments with the home as concept and lived material space in which taste, anxiety and desire are (re)discovered, internalized and projected. The “uncanny” is employed to expose the Surrealist underpinnings of many of the selected works, while orienting the concept in the digital age. The “uncanny valley”–a term used to denote discomfort with a range of robots or animated figures that are recognized as almost, but not quite human–is a useful reference in that it captures a class of likeness that is disturbing. Masahiro Mori knowingly observed in 1970 that people’s comfort with the synthetically human increases as its likeness increases up to a certain point, which is followed by a quick shift to a negative response for that which falls within the “uncanny valley.”1 His observations, like Freud’s exposition on the uncanny (1919),2 underscore the slipperiness of the uncanny as a quality or feeling of revulsion aroused in response to something which is familiar, but slightly off. Many of the objects in the show, like the arrangement of them, touch on the uncanny without falling into the valley. It is humor, perhaps, that keeps the viewer safe.
Art masquerades as domestic objects in an intimate space that tests viewers’ expectations of gallery and home. “Home” implies physical and psychological space; each playfully engaged in a house-turned-gallery, curated so as to make the objects and visitors feel uncomfortably at home. For Freud, familiarity is as much a psychic projection as a literal clue, seating one’s primordial and childhood experience as the core of one’s later sensitivity to the uncanny. He first examines the uncanny (unheimlich) in relation to its opposite: heimlich. The relationship between these two concepts and, in particular, the nuances of the latter make the home a particularly rich area for experimentation. Freud states that heimlich, “…belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.”3 Heimlich is thus, in one sense, “homely.” For us, heimlich, or the homely, as that which is familiar and comfortable–and comfortable through the repression of discomfort–is worth considering as the show queries the edge between comfort and unease, between exposure and concealment for selected artists and the show’s visitors. The uncanny is disgust that lurks in the familiar.
The blurring of the lines that divide the privacy of home and public space is a useful ploy that harkens back to Surrealist practices and contemporary interests in engaging with site in meaningful ways. By the mid-1930s, Surrealists had begun to play with found objects and unconventional exhibitions that crafted an all-encompassing environment. Surrealists of this period optimistically hoped to buck the limitations of aesthetic and moral conventions and to collapse the boundaries between public and private, drawing on psychoanalysis through Freud and on politics through their engagement with Marxism. Today, the dimensions of public and private seem at once more complex and superficial, making one wonder the degree to which “shock” is still possible. Still–the sharp edges of humor, the base and mundane forms of comfort and pleasure, and reactive amusement or disgust persist. Thus, this show tests the grounds of what we desire and fear in our relationship to art objects themselves, as much as it examines the artists’ (and curators’) defamiliarizing of the ordinary to make a point.
The show, as is now predictable, relies on its digital footprint as a means to entice viewers to visit the gallery, exposing others to the objects through social media and the show’s website. Technology plagues and inspires our daily lives and checks our interpretations of the handmade. Thus our desires and fears of engagement in physical space are modified by our virtual activities and exposure. How can we map the correlation of likeness to comfort and locate the span of the “uncanny valley” in this home? What exactly is “uncanny” in today’s “post-internet” age? Can we still be wooed and revolted by (un)common objects? We hope so! And, please, take a selfie if it makes you feel more at home!
Each artwork experiments with representations of common items such as silverware, clothing, and drinking vessels that simultaneously maintain their likeness to everyday things, while also marking a deviation from their original function or look. Humor, safety, the threat of violence, impotence and agency, the inversion of space, the alteration of the mundane, and the more overtly grotesque occupy the gallery to varying degrees.
Works from Elana Adler’s series ‘You Are My Duchess’: A Personal Anthology (2013-2015) decorate the walls of the dining room and the parlor. The framed cross-stitched works document the catcalls that Elana heard over a period of time and recorded as texts on her phone. When encountered in a public space, the lurid phrases–words thrown at a female passerby–could seem annoying or threatening. When transformed into embroidered art, however, they seem, at first glance, innocuous, then slightly jarring, but funny. Elana’s humor has a cathartic edge, especially when staged as props on a home set.
The violence implied by Kate Nielsen and Adams Puryear’s transformation of beer steins into Battle Steins (2014) seems especially amusing with the crude, wacky narratives encircling their bodies, and the ceramic brass knuckles as handles, which pose the suggestion of violence, without necessarily encouraging it. The narratives themselves display breaks with convention; a debaucherous dinner party at which one guest with a spoon on his nose and another guest on his shoulders stabs another person’s hand with a utensil; an improbable street scene; a subway car with a male figure–naked from the waist down–doing his laundry. A few visitors have tried to pick up the Steins, but (luckily, for safety’s sake) they are fixed to the mantels on which they’re propped. For now, they are just meant for looking.
Céline Browning’s On Hand (2015) sits on the mantel, a decorative addition to the home that at once seems toy-like and real, probing the mix of “real” and “artificial” weapons in our everyday and suggesting dysfunction. The handgun’s barrel melts over the edge of the woodwork. Its function becomes questionable through this transformation; if not a trophy, a tool for recreation or protection, then what is the purpose of this form? Its impotence is emphasized by Julia Csekö’s piece Tripas de aço [Guts of Steel] of 2013-2016. A kitchen table covered with velvet becomes the pedestal for her altered silverware stitched with gold thread to the table. The topography of the table and the disproportionately tiny chair (also rendered odd by its velvet shroud) emphasize their aesthetic transformations into objects made for contemplation rather than use. Céline’s Terminals, Altered Outlets (2011) replace or compliment a few of the house’s original outlets. Their subtle deviation from the norm makes them impossible to use, but tempting to try–amusing while in the context of an exhibition, but frustrating if you imagined them as blocking your chance to recharge a device. Céline’s and Julia’s works entice, but also provoke a sense of helplessness and uncertainty through their divergences from the norm.
Conversely, other artists project agency onto their objects. Mia Cross’s Time To Go (2014) is a chair that has sprouted two human-like legs made from gently used prosthetics. Despite the suggestion of movement and the threat that the chair may walk away, the piece’s sculptural bulk thankfully holds it in place. Flamigophones (2016), an experiment by Amelia Young, bring kitschy garden decoration into the gallery, literally giving voice to the common plastic garden inhabitants by transforming them into functional instruments. In each instance, the artists give agency to objects normally placed in homes or yards with little consideration.
Joana Traub Csekö’s House (2015) plays with inversion, using light and reflection to alter the way one conventionally views photography and reads the stories attached to it. A photograph of a house’s exterior, set behind water (perhaps the scene of a flood) becomes the interior of the house. The mirror mimics the reflective surface of the water that it represents, and the house becomes an unusual frame and intriguing object placed atop a tall table. One has to look down into the house for the image to be revealed. The house creates an intimate space, a private viewing within a gallery setting, or yet another interior space to explore in public. The photo of the house within a house placed within another house (the gallery) becomes a mise en abyme that ties back to the uncanny through the disorientation that repetition can provoke.
Kate Gilbert’s Shell Jackets (2013) are hung in a closet equipped with a pair of “safety” shoes, cautiously outfitted with insoles and powder, and a “survival” kit in a security lock box. The inflatable jackets come in four sizes–each of distinct exterior fabrics and interior linings. A mirror and a chair await the viewer-turned-invited-guest to leave her own shell behind and try on one made overtly with security in mind. The act of trying on the jacket in the gallery at once puts the visitor on display while also giving the person the opportunity to feel (perhaps) empowered by the added bulk of one’s physique. The manual act of pumping the jackets full of air by squeezing the pumps with one’s hands is itself an act of stress relief. The jackets are beautiful, well-made objects. Yet they are also amusing in their address of the desire for various types of shells and subterfuge. They invite the viewer to try on a shell, which, especially in the gallery, seems an expected guise.
Unlike Kate’s offer of safety (if even only temporary and with an edge of criticality), Jonathan Talit’s clay sculptures (2013-2016) are arranged in the den of the house–shared only with a couple of Céline’s Altered Outlets that are installed on the walls. Jonathan’s sculptures seem demented pets that have been confined out of view. Strobila 1 slides off a stack of blue and white pee pads; its hair is provocative and repulsive. Microwave–a pet carrier with a pink goo oozing out of it–is odd and mysterious, inspiring some passersby to kneel down and peek into it. Untitled sits atop the ottoman, Untitled (Ox) creeps out of its doggie bed, and Shannon shares a pizza box with shellacked slices and a pepper. The anthropomorphized form’s title further affirms its humanness–like attributes that are often assigned to pets–marking the ease with which some imagine the personalities of creatures. It’s satisfying and disgusting to ogle the prickly hair of the worm-like Strobila I as one thinks to oneself that it might need a shave. These works make viewers cringe from the “special effects” (Jonathan’s treatment of the material and inclusion of other objects like the shellacked pizza), but we keep looking. Their placement on the floor and with domestic props makes us wonder about their relationship with one another. They make us wonder what may happen when we turn off the lights and only the glow of Bloom and Microwave reveal nocturnal actions. More than any of the other pieces in the show, Jonathan’s works provoke a disgust that most comfortably rests in the uncanny.
The objects in The Uncanny Home of Our Imagination play with the frustrations that accompany our desires, our conflicting sensations of attainment and loss, of agency and impotence, of safety and fear through representations of objects caught in the act of divergence in the “safest” place we know–home.
1 Masahiro Mori, “The Uncanny Valley,” Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato, trans., Energy 7(4)
2 Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” 1919. First published in Imago, Bd. V., 1919; reprinted in Sammlung,
Fünfte Folge. [Translated by Alix Strachey.] Accessed online:
3 Freud, 3.