Rooms with a view
Unique takes on the notion that there’s no place like home
No people appear in Ann Toebbe’s homey paintings and cut-paper pieces in her show “Housekeeping,’’ at Steven Zevitas Gallery, but the pieces still read, intriguingly, like psychologically fraught short stories about a family.
Maybe it’s the odd and ingenious perspective she often employs. Toebbe has us peering analytically down into rooms. The perspective rotates, as if each room were a cardboard box that the artist has flattened. Walls, and whatever is set against them, go up, down, left, and right — the protective architecture appears to have fallen down to expose everything within.
Two works made out of fastidiously cut tiny shards of paper have titles such as “The Ex-Wife’s Pies and Things,’’ implying a relationship that may be uneasy or accommodating. In this one, we gaze into a kitchen. The pies are disks on the circle of a tabletop, surrounded by the round seats of kitchen stools. Toebbe creates a staggering degree of detail: The table’s wood grain is depicted with different strands of brown paper. The palette, while mostly brown and gray, pops with bright little moments, such as the accumulation of children’s shoes in one corner.
The artist brings the crisp clarity of the cut-paper process to her paintings. A series of four oil and gouache depictions of her parents’ dining room takes us through a good cleaning. The palette brightens from one work to the next, and Toebbe moves the furniture around like pieces on a game board. “Dusty Dining Room’’ is the grayest. Toebbe toys with the perspective; we see the table and a window from a high angle, but certain chairs appear to topple away, as if we’re viewing them from directly above. She dusts, polishes, and vacuums, and the final piece, “Dining Room,’’ sparkles.
Toebbe’s sophisticated work with color, space, and perspective strikes a curious balance: She blesses the home, but at the same time she exposes its innards. If she inserted characters amid her warm tones and crisp edges, she’d have the makings of a children’s book. As it is, she’s got something more uneasy, better suited to adults.
But Costanzo takes the whole process out of our time and places it in the Victorian era, when mourning was more ritualized and more publicly accepted — although, granted, those rituals followed a death, not a breakup — and the contrast between then and now shook me out of my discomfort.
Most of the paintings are self-portraits in which Costanzo wears a Victorian-style black dress and bonnet. She utilizes a gray-brown, Goya-inspired palette. In the full-length portrait “Comfortably Numb,’’ the dress is a haze of long, languorous brushstrokes in silver and black against a velvety brown ground. Everything is soft, except the sharp lines of the mourner’s downcast face.
In “meet me on the roof’’ (a title taken from that fateful text message), Costanzo portrays herself against a cloudy, steel-gray sky. Her dress could be a storm cloud, but her face is vivid and drawn. The artist also uses video (in a needed dash of levity, from “The Bride of Frankenstein’’) and Victorian-inspired wallpaper to reinforce the formal rawness of grief in that time. Nowadays after a loss, we don’t wear black for months or hang black crepe in our windows. We go back to work and soldier on. Costanzo went back to work in her studio and addressed her grief, and she made art that will touch many who are quietly in the throes of their own sorrow.
In “Jokulsarlon IV,’’ that rough line arches luminously above a passage of black, forming the bottom edge of a contemplative gray-blue area that winks with paler lines and curves. Black returns at the top, so that even the darker blue seems infused with light amid all that black.
Richard Barnes’s black-and-white photographs make a surprisingly apt pairing with Moore’s paintings. They appear at first as abstractions: black, sooty smudges against great white skies. In fact, those smudges are flocks of starlings, creating their own choreography in the sky. In “Murmur no. 4’’ the bird formation resembles an open Swiss army knife. Surely these distinctive shapes are the work of air currents, but they look as intentional as an artist’s mark.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.