Miami artist Vanessa Diaz and Madison artist Sylvia Rosenthal use a mix of playful, antique, natural and household objects to create a series of installations that are rich in narrative and metaphor in the pair’s latest exhibition, The House of Risk, displayed on the second floor of Milwaukee’s historic Villa Terrace Museum through January 27.
Both artists also reimagine the lives of the original owners, Agnes and L.R. Smith, and their family, incorporating nature themes and materials in their work. On the stairwell, Diaz has arranged fake vining leaves, a nod to the Villa Terrace’s overgrown gardens of decades past. (In 1990, the Friends of Villa Terrace organization formed to tend the grounds and gardens).
Rosenthal often uses wood as an artistic medium. In Still Life, she uses the Drake Gallery, a room with dark wooden paneling in the style of an English mansion, as a backdrop to the installation — a series of eclectic objects on a long wooden table, including a faux plant arrangement, a wooden camel, a wooden skull-shaped teapot and a sphere-shaped item embedded with fake gems dubbed “Sputnik” jewelry.
The fireplace and walls are lined not with family photos, but with pictures of children wearing oversized teddy bear heads and framed galactic hologram trading cards. A ceramic bust of the Incredible Hulk sits in the fireplace. These items suggest humanity’s desire for wealth, its imagining of the future, and its tendency to “conquer” nature rather than simply coexist with it.
In another installation, Rosenthal has placed two huge teddy bear heads on opposite ends of a wooden seesaw which rests on top of a layer of multi-colored carpet foam padding, perhaps to represent the imbalance of power between humanity and nature — the sheer amount of animal habitats that have been destroyed in favor of industrial development and housing.
The Zuber Gallery, once the bedroom of one of the Smith daughters (or another female family member) contains a number of common and inventive items, housed in a large glass display case illuminated by a pale green light, including a fantasy turtle-shell home with miniature chairs and tables, household sponges, a wooden stool on its side and a mini-moped shaped like a snail. To the left of the display case, pots hang from a stripped tree branch.
A life-size moped, shaped like a lion/goat hybrid creature, sits in the middle of the room; a plastic Incredible Hulk figurine sits on top of the fireplace. All of these items suggest the space belonged to an adventuresome, independent and imaginative spirit that did not readily conform to typical gender roles.
Shana McCaw, senior curator of the Villa Terrace, writes in the exhibit’s brochure that Diaz “considers the [Villa Terrace’s] architecture, its orientation in space and time, and its surrounding landscape.”
In the second-floor hallway, Diaz’s installation A Formula More Complicated than the Problem Itself, features a number of metal chandeliers, lanterns, and light fixtures from different time periods — ornate, but not very practical. Many of the items are tilted on their sides, as if they were discarded carelessly, a detail that could possibly represent how people are quick to reject beautiful items in favor of the latest technology. However, McCaw notes that the installation could represent how Agnes Smith rejected light fixtures for the traditional candlelight.
Diaz’s last installation, set in the Main Gallery (Smith Bedroom) is a collection of decorative and technological objects, among them what appears to be a type of record player, a painted turquoise vase, glass jars and fake flowers. The bedroom is draped off from the rest of the exhibit, symbolic of a sanctuary in one’s home.
While always keeping the history of the Villa Terrace in mind, Diaz and Rosenthal have transformed a large portion of the museum’s second floor into a bizarre, colorful world where antiquity, the present and the future meet.
Go See It: House of Risk at the Villa Terrace, Oct.18, 2018 – Jan. 27, 2019