David Miller is an artist and owner of Dungan Miller Design Ltd.
"Open House" is modest, tiny even. This project is the latest house-transformation by the two artists, Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, known for similar collaborative works since 1995. The house was brought in to its Downtown location and set on a platform. Then the artists worked a series of dramatic changes to it. From a distance, it holds its original, easily-read character, “house.” It even has white-painted trim, as if to show domestic pride, like so many houses in the neighborhoods do.
"Open House" is near City Hall, and near the Downtown end of Buffalo Bayou Park, a busy place of outdoor recreation and play, of skateboarding and baby strollers. The "Open House" location is, by contrast, subdued. It is tucked in the Heritage Society’s section of Sam Houston Park. Here, a collection of dwellings from the city’s early life is gathered oddly on a sloping lawn. The houses are disconnected from both the park’s sounds of enjoyment and the enormous blue-green glass wall of skyscrapers across Bagby street. "Open House" stands out here, an odd bird at the hinge of different Houstons.
Havel and Ruck are masters of transforming the arbitrary and interchangeable nature of Houston into specific places. Their work always touches the past, especially its most intimate, neglected corners.
Their work has a temporal nature. The works have an end date. Few pieces of their most prominent works are preserved. The medium they choose, houses slated for demolition, guarantees this. They’ve commented that memory is the best way of recording the projects. Everyone will have a different impression of "Open House."
A great contrast comes when I step through the door of the house. The inside walls have been pasted with a skin of historic photos. They fan out in a brown and grey quilt. All of the twentieth century is represented. They are a wonder to behold. Faces, groups, and places look back at me.
Dislocated from name and identity, the photos resonate with pride and struggle. These are all the shapes of the consumer snapshot, with a few more formal shots. Dan Havel tells me of the process of accumulating the pictures, which were gotten through donations and the resale shop. Then came hours spent handling the photos, spreading them in arrays on the wall, and gluing them down. “I’m still discerning all their aspects,” he said. As soon as I stepped inside, the photos called out a deep sigh in me.
They are a great inventory of what we choose to keep. You’ll recognize some. Astronaut group shots, a young Sylvester Turner at TSU, and here’s a 6-year-old Dean Ruck sitting on Santa’s knee. So many more are anonymous subjects. Here are commemorations, awards ceremonies, the Texas City Disaster, a mom with her daughter, and a grandma, standing alone in her house dress, in the 1920s. Here’s the Ferris wheel, a baby, a summer camp scene, the youthful team. I experienced the longing for recognition in faces I know, and here, those I don’t.
The house walls have been cut with a Swiss cheese pattern of holes. The outdoors is everywhere visible from within. The random holes were lined with PVC construction pipe, which you’ll recognize from its turquoise color. Craft and care ensure that the unity of the building walls hold a clean silhouette. From inside, the blue cut-outs seem to be winking in the aged brown photo skin.
At night, 1,200 watts of lighting inside will shine through the cutouts, creating a bright lantern presence for those who pass. The project is part of Art Blocks, a public art initiative created and managed by the Houston Downtown Management District. “Open House” is ADA accessible, admission is free, and it can be visited from dawn to dusk for the next nine months.
The use of the photographs is a notable shift from the previous house-transformations by Havel and Ruck. Inversion, Give and Take, Fifth Ward Jam, and Sharp explode, implode, or puncture the domestic interior of the house to produce beautiful adventures in space. "Open House" is gentler with its small holes and photographs.
I’m most interested in the next phase of life for "Open House." I’m very curious to see how, now open to the public, it is received and even adopted by Houstonians. It shows us ourselves in a small space given for reflection, right in the exposed place of public life. How will we take it up? What Instagram selfies will it be seen in? Will it become a pilgrimage place where people bring photos to leave behind?
We all seek belonging. We seek it as much now as when we lived among kin in the village. One of the paradoxes of urban life is that we look for belonging in the anonymous places of the city. Here is where "Open House" is exceptional. It shows us ourselves in a small place given for reflection, right in the exposed place of public life. With subtle skill and restraint, the artists honor our yearning. "Open House" is clean of ornament or a marketable facade, and won’t make for a graphic at the airport. No-one will feel excluded, I believe, from taking the few steps up and inside. The artists have practiced a gentle hospitality.
I tend to want a lot from public art. But so often, a sculpture in the park has spent too much energy announcing itself to accomplish much more. "Open House" uses the least means to accomplish a lot. It serves as a threshold between city life, lived in public, and the intimate and domestic faces that we show in a family snapshot. Go see "Open House." Plan to see the nearby Cistern, as well, with its new art installation by Carlos Cruz-Diez. In "Open House," you’ll find deep layers of mystery and meaning that touch on each of our experiences as we live together in the city.