House of Memory
of an Exhibit
by Kendra Percy
Published on March 18, 2013 , Modified on March 19, 2013
Museum: NMAI in New York City
Visit Date: March, 2013
C. Maxx Stevens: House of Memory, National Museum of American Indian-NY.
Slip through a door beneath the splendor of the rotunda of Alexander Hamilton’s former home within the US Custom’s House, currently the National Museum of the American Indian NY and enter another world. Leave the gilded dome, the ornate marble columns, the gigantic murals of prowess, echoes of commerce and trade and behold another kind of dwelling; an introspective home constructed of wood, parchment, twines, hair, feathers, metal, wax, discarded items and shattered glass. A House of Memory, by C. Maxx Stevens lurks within baring some intimate truths about identity and the sur-realities of living in two different worlds.
As the murals of Reginald Marsh and Elmer Garnsey high along the rotunda walls call out assertively for us to remember and imagine a life and time before so do Stevens’ constructions, but in a much different, highly personal and introspective way. Presented with yet another perspective¬ from which to examine history– via first -hand accounts, reconstructed memories and in some cases reinvented ones– the visitor is summoned to examine historical truths in a new light.
The exhibition occupies three large galleries and is ideally situated in relation to other current exhibitions and permanent collections. Access to House of Memory is easily attained directly off the rotunda as a starting point or trailed into at the tale end of Infinity of Nations. Either entry way (I have done both) provides a cohesive experience and a deepening of one’s prior knowledge. Stevens’ memories, spirits of her personal past become the docent, the narrative voice leading us through a different version of history. They permeate, tinker, and possibly shift one’s own perspective and experiences and invite the viewer along with the artist to consider other or multiple truths.
Following a concise introduction, the first work in the perfectly pitched and lit gallery, Three Graces sets the stage. Representing the artist along with two of her sisters, feminine forms constructed of natural materials wear hoop skirts that resemble native Seminole dress. Each form is essentially the same but the materials vary and each is uniquely adorned to indicate the particular character, spirit and position of the sister. Placed where the head would reside, a different object rests. In the case of Molly, eldest sister and cataloguer of family history, a photograph of their mother and maternal grandparents sits (traditions are passed maternally within artists culture) and for Lou, the family storyteller a house. Steven’s own figure is topped with a ring of cedar twigs. Despite their implied differences a strong feeling of their close- knit, protective nature is conveyed.
The theme of family and home and vulnerability continues into the next gallery with six structures representing different family members’ “houses”: one for the artist’s father, mother, grandparents and so on. Within that framework, a reference to the suburban cul-de-sac, House of Disregard poignantly depicts the precarious nature of memories based on shattered traditions and beliefs. Thick, sculptural metal arrowheads dangle above a series of objects contained under glass covers. The small objects range from replicas of the Venus of Willendorf to a snow globe skyline of New York to the prominent turtle shells used in traditional stomp dance served up on a shattered cake plate.
Before turning into the last gallery, in the House of Transitions, a large caged metal crow a top a turntable continuously pecks at a mounted photographic representation of the artist dangling from a string. The two -sided object depicts the artist in Seminole dress on one side and professional attire on the other. From the artist’s own recount; the raven is a strong symbol evident in many of her works and life, serving as the messenger and constant reminder keeping her moving. The cage in this work is representative of protection and captivity, the two-sided portrait a woman constantly rotating between two worlds.
The last gallery (or the first depending on the visitor’s approach) contains print work and a video / sculptural installation. The images and materials prevalent in in the prints serve as further symbolic excavations as she mines through the past. An eerie ghost town affect is created by the installation a Cultural Landscape. Two sides of a lane stand hauntingly frozen against respective waxed parchment backdrops as old reels in black and white eerily tick by. Taped up, abandoned dollhouses with rusted edges adorn pedestals sheathed in white gauze on one side and open books made of parchment paper lay open, bared, without writing and horse hair braids resting in the spines atop pedestals sheathed in black.
A free multi-media guide is available for the exhibition for download via iTunes and the Google Play store. The keyword is NMAI-NY. Depending upon individual accessibility of the exhibition, I recommend experiencing it in person and trusting one’s own interpretation, which can always be strengthened by listening to additional commentary. Guided by one’s own personal compass and with the help of friendly and informative staff there, the encounter with the artist and her construction of the past will provide a whole new view of the future.