Artist Leo Saul Berk’s radiating, orange carpet looked like the coldest night I can remember. Growing up in Chicago’s suburbs, where school was frequently cancelled due to windchill, I was used to feeling the bite of a black winter night through our double-paned windows. Berk’s rug, titled Heat Signature, transported me back to an evening when I was 11 years old and our heater went out. When my father woke me, I could see a faint cloud at the end of his breath as he spoke. I wasn’t cold for very long because he dropped my sister and me off at an aunt’s for the night. Meanwhile, he stayed with the house, sleeping beside the fireplace as if it couldn’t be left alone.
I thought of that night as Berk told the story behind Heat Signature during a press preview for his exhibition Structure and Ornament at the Frye Art Museum, a show that comprised works exploring memories of his childhood home. Berk recounted how, when his family moved into the house in Aurora, Illinois, during a similarly harsh Chicago winter, they found the heating system inadequate. They slept on rugs, in sleeping bags, curling into the radiant heat that collected on the floors. Inspired by that memory and a return to the house as an adult, the artist mapped the floor’s warmth with a thermal imaging camera. The resulting orange and yellow pattern became Heat Signature’s surface of coils that blaze against its plush, black border. This collision of vibrancy and darkness pulsated between the rug’s fibers as I gazed into it, evoking the intense warmth we can only know after experiencing an unbearable kind of cold.
What Berk’s home lacked in heating it made up for in artistry. He grew up inside the semispherical glass and coal walls of a residence called the Ford House, designed by midcentury architect Bruce Goff. Upon realizing the effect that experience had on his life, Berk sought to re-envision it through the 13 works in Structure and Ornament that, at their best, question the human need to reconstruct the physical things of our past lives.
An undeniable nostalgia permeated the exhibition, much of which referenced architectural details Berk found in place at the Ford House just as he remembered them. Green glass marbles he recalled pulling from a cannel-coal wall are left as voids in Mortar and Marbles, a sculptural model of the feature he built to scale. In Specular Reflections, enlarged versions of the marbles floated atop the Frye’s outdoor reflecting pool, shiny and sweet in the sun, like the stories from our childhoods that parents never grow tired of telling. In isolation, such moments of the exhibition secreted an image of the Ford House as a permanent remnant of the artist’s youth that remained the way it was left, simply waiting to be found.
But the artist also darkened the pool’s water with a muddy pond-dye and rebuilt the house’s wall as an ominous, jet-black skeleton. He shared how at one point he considered creating a domed urn in the house’s shape for current owner Syndey Robinson’s future ashes, but Robinson declined. Berk used coal to sculpt a Ford House–like saltcellar instead, but standing before the piece, I couldn’t stop seeing it as the urn. I had become unable to untangle the owner’s mortality from this aging architectural wonder.
Maybe this is because I know our relationships with architecture to be as mortal as the people living inside it. My father recently left behind our childhood home, with the fireplace, with much resistance. A young couple planning a family moved in, while he downsized to a condo across town. Ever since he has been repainting his new home’s walls, retiling its floors, embarking on his own restoration process, trying to recreate the home that still exists but he could no longer keep.
The title of Berk’s exhibition, Structure and Ornament, came from a sunburst-like sculpture with the same name that filled an entire gallery. Constructed from plywood without any fasteners, the piece at first appeared strong and eternal. Standing beside it, however, you could see the tenuous angle at which it balanced. Like a cloud of breath, it seemed to hang in the air, its existence as subject to the test of time as the human hands and memories that brought it into being.
Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament was on view at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle from 30 May through 6 September 2015.