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The group exhibition, Built In, co-curated by Marta gallery and Erik Benjamins, was recently on view at the Neutra VDL House, a three-story, mid-century construction designed by architect Richard Neutra that sits opposite the Silver Lake Reservoir. It served as the family home to Neutra, his wife Dione, and their three children from its inception in 1932 until 1990, when it was donated to Cal Poly Pomona. The exhibition brought together 32 Los Angeles-based artists and collectives, inviting them to respond to one of the house’s signature architectural features: the built-in. A built-in—generally, and as they are deployed across the VDL House—refers to elements of a home whose intrinsic permanence opposes the transient quality of mobile, freestanding furniture. These cupboards, capsules, and benches blur the line between function and decoration.
The highly intentional, site-specific strategies of this group of artists imbued the unoccupied house with a soft-spoken yet dynamic sensoriality; the works were charged with the echoes of bodies and lives now gone, but whose presence was felt via the material activations of touch, scent, color, form, and sound. While the reactivation of architectural landmarks as exhibitions sites often proves challenging—a tightrope dance among the bureaucracies of preservation—the show pushed the historical structure beyond its austere status as architectural specimen and exposed it first and foremost as a home, with all its attendant layers, warmths, and ghosts.
Some of the works reinterpreted existing structures of the building, such as Escher GuneWardena’s Tokonoma for the Neutra VDL House (2021), a plywood nook created to house rotating ikebana installations by Ravi GuneWardena and guest arrangers beneath the first-floor staircase. The nook featured a vertical post coated in metallic paint that mirrors Neutra’s signature practice of camouflaging wood in faux-finishes. While the majority of the interventions melded inconspicuously with elements of the home, employing a similar tactic of camouflage, their tendency toward invisibility invoked the home’s absent but omnipresent phantoms. Jason Lipeles and Janet Solval’s Stack Piece (All Senses) (2021), a soap-work inscribed with the poetic phrase, “Dione plays the cello/ Richard listens,” in reference to the Neutras’ relationship, was poised discreetly on the ledge of the kitchen sink. Fiona Connor swapped original Neutra furniture with replicas from her ongoing series Studio Furniture (Neutra VDL) (2010—)— the originals taking up residency in the artist’s home for the duration of the exhibition.
Other works feel connected to the Neutras via stranger and more surreal interventions. In the closet in Dione’s bedroom hung a row of loose, kimono-like uniforms in sizes ranging from XS to XXL by Nancy Stella Soto (Leisure Uniform, 2021) that viewers were invited to slip into. In the second-floor living room, Brody Albert’s sculptural intervention, Elijah (2021), in which a hidden electric heater set to body temperature (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) replaced the stuffing inside one cushion of an original built-in couch, evoked the uncanny sensation of a recently-liberated seat when sat upon.
Perhaps most haunting of all was the aural immersion on the third floor, which itself feels like an ascension into an almost mystical realm—a glass box overlooking the reservoir yet shielded from the traffic and bustle of the boulevard below. Jeremiah Chiu suffused this space, which Dione Neutra often enlivened with her cello playing (it was her favorite place in the house to practice), with a sound installation Dione and Her Own Space (2021), that incorporated field recordings made within the house and past performances of Dione singing and playing cello, to spectral effect. The ensemble of the show’s precise aesthetic choices together rekindled and reimagined the spirit of a home that somehow feels at once trapped in time and deeply lived-in. Like an electrical charge, these artworks activated already unique architectural spaces, leaving both the home and us, its visitors, a little more alive.
Built In ran from September 18–November 7, 2021 at the Neutra VDL House (2300 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90039).