One of the most striking qualities of the bizarre house that artist and filmmaker Brent Green built for his new film, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then
, is that it feels particularly his while at the same time being someone else's. The house is a remake of sorts, a reconstruction of an off-kilter home that once stood on a block of more socially acceptable ones in Louisville, Kentucky. And yet wandering through and around it—or the half of it currently installed at Andrew Edlin Gallery—anyone familiar with Green's work will wonder that he didn't invent it himself.
The builder of the original Louisville home was a man named Leonard Wood, a hardware store clerk who created the structure in the 70s as both a labor of love and obsession. Wood intended it to be a kind of healing machine for his wife, Mary, who was diagnosed with cancer soon after their marriage and died about two years later. With a laundry room boasting 23-foot-high vaulted ceilings, a bedroom that started halfway up the wall so one had to climb in to enter it, and dropped ceiling tiles serving as wallpaper in another room, the house was bereft of all logic except Leonard's, who was apparently convinced he was speaking to god through its construction, pleading to save Mary and, after her death, get her back.
Green saw the house just before it was demolished in 2005, when Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty organized a concert there. Wood had moved out of the house and into a nursing home the year before, after falling off the roof, and had left behind most of his possessions—everything from personal letters to bank statements. The latter showed that he was pretty much broke all the time. Green, too, was broke at the time, and he was inspired: "I realized you're never going to die from running out of money," he said in a recent interview. "I thought about running everything down to zero to make something wonderful."
That something is his latest film, and his first feature-length one, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then
, which premieres at the IFC Center on May 7. It tells a fictional story of Leonard and Mary, set in and around a re-creation of Leonard's house, which Green built in his backyard in Cressona, Pennsylvania, along with four neighboring houses. "When I decided to make the film, it seemed completely impossible to build a town in my backyard," he explained. "That was very appealing to me."
Pieces of the set as well as short video clips from and about the film comprise Green's second solo show in New York, running at Andrew Edlin Gallery through June 5. For anyone familiar with it, the space is the old Bellwether Gallery, where Green first showed in 2007. The portion of the house installed there fits snugly in the main high-ceilinged room, but it's hard not to long for a more warehouse-y Chelsea venue where he might have been able to erect the whole thing.
Still, what is there is fairly wondrous. Although the jury remains out on Green's transition from short films to feature-length (his longest prior to the 75-minute Gravity
runs only 12 minutes and 35 seconds), he has moved from small-scale sets to a large one with complete success. In fact, his work benefits from its newfound bigness—the intensity of feeling previously contained in his sunken-faced creatures, which often look like they've emerged from an Edvard Munch painting
, and misshapen wooden objects swells to fill the Wood house. The experience of being able to walk in and around it is immensely satisfying.
In particular, wandering through allows the viewer to appreciate Green's handicraft up close, something not easily done when watching his shadowy, stop-motion films
. He has a way with wood, an ability to bend and warp it to fit his ideas, and though the construction isn't always entirely clean, it is convincing. For instance, consider a chair with a back that stretches up and then arches over the piece, ending in a lightbulb facing the sitter: bizarre, and yet completely logical in its surroundings. The crooked, jerky arch could turn sinister in someone else's hands (Tim Burton
comes to mind), but in Greens' its imperfection suits the house, the angled wood echoing other bizarre constructions, such as the seemingly purposeless tower that rises in back or the brilliant handmade piano.
The trickiest part, if we care to do it, is determining whose vision we are admiring. How much of what we see is Wood's work, and how much Green's? I suspect more of the latter. Wood left behind only rough blueprints for the house on cardboard, and Green admits to taking some artistic liberties with it. Video vignettes playing in the gallery also show clips from the feature film, where Green has made Wood's story his own with a fictional script. In the shorts, he compares Wood to the biblical Noah, because, he said, "Leonard had a single-minded focus on this thing that was ridiculous. He was a joke in the neighborhood, like Noah. Noah had to chop down trees by himself and build a giant seaworthy ship to fit a world's worth of animals. That's just ridiculous, and so I like it. That seems impossible, too."
Indeed, Green and Wood seem to be just two in a long line of men who dream of, and sometimes realize, the impossible: Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, who singlehandedly built the landmarked Watts Towers
in Los Angeles alone over the course of 34 years; architect Antoni Gaudí, whose La Sagrada Família
is still being completed, nearly 130 years after its conception, in Barcelona; and, on a lesser-known scale, someone like Vince Hannemann in Austin, Texas, who has been building a towering cathedral of junk
in his backyard since 1988 and is now fighting the city to keep it standing.
Green draws on the sense of urgency implicit in those endeavors, making most of his projects "a reminder to pay attention and do shit, and to recognize how much amazing stuff there is in the world," he said. "Because it's really easy to forget that. It's really easy to get mired down and sob for a while." Still, he unavoidably stands apart for multiple reasons—for piggybacking off of someone else's crazy dream, for installing his work in a commercial gallery and putting pieces of it up for sale, for having other projects to move on to in the future. In that way his going for broke seems a little less real. His inspiration, however, feels eminently genuine. And for better or for worse, there may be no other way to do it and stay sane.
(photos courtesy the artist, Andrew Edlin Gallery)