Gimme Shelter

House-hunting après la déluge.

There’s no place like home, be it ever so humble (or, if we’re well-heeled, humbling). But in 2008, “financial weapons of mass destruction” (Warren Buffett, 2003), i.e., subprime-backed mortgage securities, financial derivatives, credit default swaps, and home-equity-funded consumption, devastated the Ownership Society. Bricks and mortar (and concrete) suddenly became a lot less abstract and a lot more worrisome. The mortgage tsunami has, not surprisingly, introduced a sense of crisis and absurdity into contemporary art; the photos of Nell Dickerson, Eirik Johnson, Ali Richards, Alice Shaw, Luther Thie, and Kathrine Worel in Siege, curated by Kala Gallery’s Lauren Davies, are no exception. The “suburban tract developments, whimsical 1930’s fantasy castles, … contemporary ghost town[s], and stately homes under siege by … nature, time, neglect, and decay” depicted here symbolize this embattled era of suburban/exurban New Hoovervilles, “trashed out” foreclosures with optimistically spray-painted lawns.

Dickerson, from a Mississippi Delta cotton-farming family, with degrees in anthropology, photography, and architecture, is a preservationist and archivist; her 2004 series, Gone, documents the once-stately mansions of the antebellum South now gone to seed and invaded by the landscape, reminiscent of Clarence John Laughlin’s New Orleans photos, but, in “House Facade/St. Genevieve,” “Attic/Fayette,” and “Parlor/Hinds,” with history trumping nostalgia. Johnson explores a more familiar (albeit equally neglected) neighborhood in his West Oakland Walk series, finding an offbeat humor in the isolation and entrapment in “Fenced-in Car” and “Borderland: Untitled (Island).” Richards goes upslope and up-market in her Jesusita Summerland series, examining mountain homes devastated by last year’s wildfires in “Gary’s New Home,” with its house bisected (for removal?), and “2245 Holly Road” and “Gardener Residence, East Mountain Drive,” with their skeletal ruins.

Shaw looks at architecture humorously in her Castles of the United States of America series, a typology of 1920s and 1930s stucco houses gussied up with neo-Romanesque turrets and machicolations and stone-framed portals. Thie and Worel examine Merced’s all-but-abandoned suburbs in the Central Valley; “Outpost” presents a McMansion model home with lawn, driveway, access street, and lighting pole, all surrounded by undeveloped dirt, with a tree-lined road leading back to executive homes, presumably inhabited. Also included: a 1950s Civil Defense film, Life in a Fall-out Shelter, on life underground “in the wake of disaster,” in a public shelter, with water and crackers; or a private one, with sodas and canned soup (like the failsafe nuclear family in the mockocalypse comedy Blast from the Past). Siege runs through May 8 at Kala Gallery (2990 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley). 510-841-7000 or


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