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Artists give old houses a uniquely interactive last stand

At the south end of the 700 block of Bellevue Avenue E., a group of old houses is taking a last stand.

These five creaky structures—in need of paint and, in some cases, full remodels—were home to several tenants until recently. Now they’re home to 11 art installations curated by MadArt. A local organization founded by Alison Milliman, MadArt is designed to give both artists and audiences unexpected ways to interact with art that is “unrestrained by conventional limitations.”

The project reminds me of Project Row House in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood, which hosts rotating exhibitions inside refurbished “shotgun shacks,” which were formerly residences for generations of low income, mostly African-American Houstonians. While the houses primarily serve as alternative gallery space, there is an echo of the former tenants that inevitably tinges the work made there and makes the entire space a valuable reminder of Houston’s complicated, socially-segregated history.

Of course, MadHomes has taken the concept to a new extreme. In creating their temporary installations, which will be torn down along with the houses, artists have punched holes in walls, sawed through floors, and transformed even the way visitors walk through the spaces here.

Artist trio SuttonBeresCuller wrapped two of the houses with red straps, pulled taut in all directions. The effect outside looks like Spiderman used the houses for target practice. Inside it challenges you to navigate the upstairs bedrooms like you might an overgrown forest — ducking and dodging branches. At first I felt like I was playing in a jungle gym made specifically to humiliate me (I’m not as flexible as I used to be). But the more I encountered the details of the house—a sun bleached Scarface poster tacked to a door, a message scrawled in red on the bathroom mirror (“Stop Using My Stuff”)—the jungle gym felt more like the rib cage inside a mythic creature that had swallowed me along with a lot of confused memories. I started bending, crawling, and ducking a little faster—not sure I would make it out in time.

Because MadHomes’ participating artists have created such celebrations of the dimensions and features of these houses, the more time you spend inside, the more the spaces come to life.

Collaborating artists Jason Puccinelli and Elizabeth Potter redesigned a house formerly occupied by beauticians. The former residents apparently had an affinity for lewd graffiti inside the house, which was filthy and full of trash when the artists arrived. Apparently, it was nothing a little bubble gum pink paint and some elbow grease couldn’t take care of. It’s now home to a magical installation in which a series of painted orbs transform, before your eyes, into a play on Manet’s famous painting, Olympia. In the original, a nude woman reclines and saucily stares down the viewer. Puccinelli and Potter’s version features a surprisingly interactive twist.

Another installation by the same artists features a woman painted into the facing of the staircase. She disappears once you reach the top step.

In a similar spirit of tricking the eye, Ryan Molenkamp has trailed a subtle stream of black paint around the outside of one the houses, connecting it and his entire installation with the view of Lake Union from the house’s front porch.

Allyce Wood, a recent Cornish grad, used around six pounds of string stretched and hammered into the shapes of humans or dogs—imagined shadows of the former tenants that overlap like cobwebs. The imagined tenants make the simple rectangle shape of the room seem suddenly holy in its humble, but crucial design.

Amanda Manitach’s installation, beautifully titled “A strange dream, deprived of all thickness,” surrounds you with the comforting clacking of five slide projectors running simultaneously (a use of power the old house wasn’t really prepared to support). Sitting on a comfy purple couch, you can watch the projectors ratchet through a series of slides emblazoned with words from 19th century texts. The result is a tidy line of words constantly rotating on the wall. “Currant,” “zebras,”  and “guano” all flashed by while I watched. Manitach sees the exhibit as a kind of layered chaos sometimes found in her drawings, but “visually dizzying in a totally different way.”

And Troy Gua has completely wrapped an entire home in plastic wrap, so that the house appears as if it’s ready to be shipped—a wry and sad reminder of the future in store for these homes.

Having spent just a little time exploring these structures, it stings a little to think of them being forever erased.  Their funky layouts create mysterious uses of space (a sink in a bedroom closet; a toilet neighboring a refrigerator); their spacious lots have private driveways and grass even. From certain view points, where the trees aren’t too overgrown, you get peek-a-boo views of downtown Seattle.

On the other hand, with their bizarre layouts (that closet space might not be so poetic if you actually had to negotiate it), spacious lots, and pretty views, it’s not hard to understand why developers envision a higher-market purpose for them. The neighboring Bel-Roy Apartments, named a Seattle landmark for their 1920s architecture, will be restored and expanded by the developer Point 32. That means that after the exhibit closes, the wrecking balls arrive.

But exploring their temporary rooms is an important reminder of the limitations faced by both people and the houses in which they live. Even if we know how to pronounce Marcel Duchamp’s name correctly, our point of view is often overly literal compared with the home art showcased here. Both we and our houses have to obey the laws and limits of physics and society. And like a house, we require some maintenance: If we aren’t cleaned regularly, the neighbors start to look askance.

The 14 artists who have taken over these homes don’t obey these laws.

Which is lucky. Since they’re a little more free, they can show us that it’s the cracks in the foundation that hold us together.

MadHomes will be on display at Roy and Bellevue on Capitol Hill, July 16 – August 7. The exhibit is free and open to the public from 12pm – 7pm daily. Parking is limited. Walking, cycling and busing are encouraged.

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