“House, New work by Tony Becker” at Prairie

I have lived in Northside for almost seven years now, so I am embarrassed to admit that my recent visit to Prairie Gallery to see House: New Works by Tony Becker on a rainy Wednesday afternoon was my first trip to the space. A second floor walk-up with a mission of “Engaging communities through art,” Becker’s installation of hand-folded and hand-decorated paper houses is a perfect counterpart to Prairie’s altruistic purpose. Bringing my two-year old son into a gallery space with artwork installed at his height might not have been the most obvious good decision…but much to my surprise, it was the perfect kind of art exhibition for him to experience.
Two spherical groupings of 400+ and 50 paper houses hang within the main exhibition gallery. Each folded 9″ X 12″ piece of paper, created by a broad cross-section of participants from around Cincinnati, is hung from fine nearly invisible wire and strung from a discrete rebar circular grid, which hangs from the ceiling. The colorful orbs, which appear to float at eye level within Prairie’s main gallery, operate as both literal and metaphorical depictions of home and community.
On the wall across from the larger of the two spheres is further information about the participants and their contributions. According to the introduction of Becker’s forthcoming exhibition catalogue, the nearly 500 participants ages five to adult were asked to respond to the question, “What does the word ‘house’ mean to you?” As one can expect from such a disparate group, the responses were appropriately diverse, and the plurality of the houses evidence such.
Becker worked with arts-mission organizations like Visionaries + Voices and the Wyoming Center for the Arts, as well as more socially-focused groups like Project Connect and Starfire Council. Participants painted, cut out, collaged, drew, & wrote upon their abodes—representing both inside and outside, private and public depictions of home—which ultimately reflect ideas of self. The individual is present but Becker’s installation succeeds as a testament to community.
The names listed on the wall text are not matched up to each artist’s paper house, underscoring this effort as a collective project. Participants’ answers range from pragmatic statements to philanthropic ideals to deeply personal concerns. Even if a good number who participated did not share their thoughts in words, preferring to be listed by first name only, the beauty of the installation is evident not upon viewing each house in its singularity but as one collective voice.
It is a small installation, but so is Prairie’s main exhibition gallery. Just two globes of strung houses occupy the space, but in a door length window overlooking Hamilton Avenue, hangs a life-size iconic, five-sided a-frame “house” that includes further work from participating artists and is only visible from the street below. Visitors to the gallery see only the occluded side of the multi-media house, lit from within at night, and eye-catching-ly vibrant during the day.

On the day that my son and I visited the gallery, the high-traffic street was busy during Take the Cake’s (a nearby restaurant/bakery which shares the alley-way entrance with Prairie) lunch rush so we had to park fairly far and walk up and down Hamilton to cross the busy street, providing us with a perfect view of this exterior component of “House.” Walking down the rainy, overcast, bustling thoroughfare, Becker’s colorful artwork shone like a glistening gem over the scene—beckoning visitors with words, signs, and symbols of shelter.
Although he seemed somewhat interested in the individual houses while inside the gallery, much to my dismay, my son discovered that he could walk right through the larger of the two installations and “hide” within—jolting precious objects in the process. The ex-museum administrator in me clutched at my proverbial pearls with white-handed gloves, but (thankfully) no piece was damaged. To some extent however, I understood his instinct. Two year olds are notoriously mischievous after all, but this one instinctively understood the concept of finding shelter—and ran for it.
Reminiscent of elementary school projects but boosted to a level of communal declaration, the fact that Becker chose to depict a globe—and not another five-sided house icon—with the small individual pieces, is compellingly indicative of his vision of a collective effort. I am reminded of Cincinnati artist Merlene Schain’s Cranes and Sky (2000-2001) installations, in which she and others created over five thousand origami paper cranes. Based upon a Nagasaki memorial to those who perished in the Hiroshima bombing, Schain’s work likewise transcends each singular crane, and resonates with the viewer as a culmination of the lot. If, in Becker’s installation, each artist’s work speaks for self (at the very least), then each larger grouping constitutes a family, village, city, state, country, and finally a globe of pluralism. Where else but the enveloping walls of home can one find succor in a bleak world?


– Maria Seda-Reeder
Becker’s exhibition runs through April 9, with a Book Release April 8, 6-9 pm at Prairie in Northside.

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