Hybridity: Why Artist Dennis Maher is Taking Apart His House to Build a Better City
Dennis Maher is an artist, architect, and educator living and working in Buffalo, NY. For the past 15 years, his projects have engaged processes of disassembly and reconstitution through drawing, photography, collage and constructions. To gain a better understanding of the intricacies behind Maher's work we recently sat down with him for a pointed interview.
Exhibition Installation View
Q: DENNIS, YOU WORK AS AN ARCHITECT AND A VISUAL ARTIST YET THOSE TWO WAYS OF “MAKING” ARE OFTEN VERY DISSIMILAR. HOW DID YOU COME TO MAKE SCULPTURAL WORK AND ASSEMBLAGE AS OPPOSED TO SOLELY DESIGNING BUILT ENVIRONMENTS?
A: The center of my art and architectural practice is my house, the Fargo House. It is a sculptural object, a work of assemblage and a work of architecture. For me, there is no separation among these fields of experimentation. I acquired the property, located at 287 Fargo Avenue in Buffalo, when it was slated for demolition in 2009. Since then, it has been my live, work and display space. I operate on the building through the processes of excavation and accumulation. Cuts into the walls, floors and ceilings, coupled with the continuous accumulation of salvaged materials and artifacts, intensify the tectonic and historical layers. It is a hybrid of archaeological dig and post-industrial construction. The house is always transforming in order to generate new fantastic images and spaces. And yet, because it also provides a place for me to hang my coat, it is enmeshed in patterns of daily living. The making and unmaking of the house is inseparable from the making and unmaking of my everyday life.
Q: TO ACTUALLY ‘LIVE’ WITHIN AN ONGOING ART PROJECT IS A HUGE COMMITMENT TO THE WORK. WHAT DRIVES YOU TO THAT LEVEL?
A: I want the Fargo House to provide an alternative image of what a house and a city might be. And I want to offer a shared space that encourages people to think creatively about the built environment. Homes are personal refuges that nurture our psyches. Cities embody values of diversity, incompleteness, heterogeneity and multiplicity while embracing the creative contributions of many hands. These values should be reinforced at many scales, in order to protect the future of our social spaces and to nurture our collective imagination. With these convictions in mind, I inaugurated the house’s first floor gallery space in 2013. At the same time, I began a robust program of workshops, tours, and special events that have helped to establish the house as a forum for art and architectural inquiry. I invite people to the house to realize creative projects and to actively participate in re-envisioning the past, present and future of their surroundings. The resulting projects have engaged students, teachers, artists, architects, tradespeople and others. The house has become a real and symbolic locus for creative synthesis.
Q: BECAUSE YOU OFTEN OPEN THE FARGO HOUSE FOR EVENTS AND TOURS, IT HAS BECOME A SEMI-PUBLIC SPACE. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO INVITE STRANGERS INTO YOUR HOME?
A: When I open the house for events or tours, I am no longer the house’s inhabitant, but its curator or guide. In these capacities, I become a director of people as opposed to material objects. I encourage visitors to wander, discover and contemplate. I believe that now—more than ever—we need spaces that encourage wonder and delight and I want my guests to have the opportunity to visually seek and find. One of the most memorable remarks I’ve heard from a visitor is, “It’s hard to zero in”. This is a resounding affirmation of the movement I aspire to advance. To “zero in” is to direct attention clearly and decisively upon one particular thing. It implies absolute focus—the finding, and holding, of the center. I have always been far more interested in relationships among fragments and in the synthesis of disparate parts. Opening the door of the house brings people together in order to synthesize new personal and social experiences.
Q: WHEN YOU SAY “MOVEMENT THAT YOU ASPIRE TO ADVANCE” WHAT DO YOU MEAN EXACTLY?
A: I am interested in the fluid nature of objects and places. The principle of continuous reconstitution anchors my approach to a world that is always in the process of becoming. Within the Fargo House, I direct flows of material toward a metaphorical space that, on the urban scale, is embodied by the conflict between ‘development’ and ‘preservation’. These are competing forces within the contemporary city. I want to open up the space between these poles in order to catalyze the imagination of future possible places. Cities are ever-changing objects that sponsor many visible and invisible ebbs and flows. I have dropped anchor in Buffalo, NY, in order to interpret and communicate such movements and to build my art and architectural practice around them.
Q: I’VE HEARD YOU CHARACTERIZE YOUR WORK AS A FORM OF ‘ANAMNESIS’, WHICH REFERS TO A SPECIAL FORM OF KNOWLEDGE IMBUED FROM PAST INCARNATIONS. HOW DOES THE FARGO HOUSE AND YOUR RECENT WORK FUNCTION IN THAT WAY?
A: Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and try to recover the fragments of my dreams, I imagine my ever-evolving residence as a container of anamnestic knowledge. I see the movements of the house as a reflection of the city’s latent memories, emerging and disappearing. These shifts upset the stability of the house’s foundation and, suddenly, from somewhere in the surrounding city, the divider separating one space from another is undone.
Q: SO YOU FEEL THE FARGO HOUSE IS A METAPHOR FOR THE CITY OF BUFFALO ITSELF?
A: The house is the city’s continually fragmenting mirror. I am interested in the convergence of the house’s interior contents with its exterior surroundings. When I cut and re-cut, layer and re-layer, I am certain that the entropy of the house collides with that of the city. The breakages of one become the repairs of another. I dismantle and rebuild my house in order to expand these resonances. Inside the house, a network of city-wide circulations are re-invented and intensified. The places where residual objects accrue—thrift stores, flea markets, estate sales, antique shops, salvage yards, and curb sides—are the coordinate points of this network. The models, vignettes and mise en scènes that populate the house form an inhabitable miniature city that is never the same place twice.
Q: HOW DO THE ART OBJECTS YOU MAKE AND EXHIBIT—COLLAGES, PRINTS, WALL RELIEFS AND FREESTANDING SCULPTURES—FUNCTION IN RELATION TO THE FARGO HOUSE?
A: The art objects that I produce are mirages; they are distorted reflections of the Fargo House. They are formed from toys, models, architectural miniatures, drawings, hardware, and other objects found within my residence. Collectively, the art objects constitute a cosmology of fantastic environments that can be read in many ways: as maps, vertical cities, ruinous landscapes, building plans or sections. They reinterpret conventional architectural imagery and playfully propose new relationships between objects and places. The objects are also tools for raising awareness of the house, and their sale generates revenue for the larger social enterprise of which the house is an integral part.
Q: CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE SOCIAL ENTERPRISE THAT YOU REFER TO?
A: Over the past several years, I have been working to extend the core ideas of the Fargo House to other sites and activities. In 2014, I acquired a derelict 1880’s era Gothic revival church in Buffalo and I founded the not-for-profit art and architecture space, Assembly House 150. With a base in the former church, the organization specializes in the design and display of imaginative environments, furnishings, and aesthetic objects. We host public exhibitions, educational programs and events to enhance the sense of wonder within everyday surroundings. Assembly House is the headquarters the Society for the Advancement of Construction Related Arts (SACRA), a skill-building initiative in carpentry and woodworking that I developed in collaboration with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. SACRA teaches skills in craftsmanship and construction and creates career advancement opportunities to members of under-resourced communities.
Q: SO ASSEMBLY HOUSE 150 AND SACRA SPEAK TO ART, COMMUNITY AND ARCHITECTURE COMING TOGETHER?
A: Absolutely. The environment that we are building within the former church and the SACRA program that is hosted there are intended to promote a culture of excellence in craftsmanship, construction and design. Assembly House 150 and the SACRA initiative are social manifestations of the material assemblages that I construct; they consist of fragments of already existing city agents: individuals, organizations, institutions and industries, aspects of which have been pieced together in order to actualize future possibilities for the city of Buffalo.
Q: BASED ON YOUR DESCRIPTIONS, IT IS IT SAFE TO ASSUME ALL YOUR ARTWORK AND PROJECTS ARE ULTIMATELY GENERATED FROM A DESIRE FOR COMMUNITY GROWTH?
A: I envision the Fargo House and Assembly House as key sites within a city-wide consortium of spaces devoted to recovering lost aspects of our collective identity. I am convinced that assembling the next ‘model city’ will require us to take apart and reconstitute the containers—as well as the contents—of our inner and outermost shells.
Maher's exhibition, City House Models, can be viewed at Eleven Twenty Projects, Buffalo, NY until April 15, 2017. Additionally, his installation work, A Second Home, is on view at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, PA until August 12, 2019 and is featured in the March 2017 issue of Sculpture Magazine. A brief excerpt of which can be viewed online.
Exhibition Installation View