Playing House

Photographs capture artificial domesticity

A few months ago, I was working with a woman who was employed by a hotel chain. Her job title was 'interior designer,' which meant she was responsible for picking and purchasing everything from lamps and bedspreads to the "art" that I was screwing to the walls.

Perhaps in an upscale hotel one might be able to grasp the concept innately, but it was something of a shock to realize that the decor in an average hotel room was actually someone's idea, that it had all gone according to plan and someone might actually feel proud of how a hotel room had turned out. Again, maybe socioeconomic status comes into play, but I cannot recall ever unlocking the door to a hotel room and thinking, "Wow! This place looks amazing." I'm happy if the mattress is firm and the television has cable. The rest of the room barely gets noticed.

From what I can tell, hotels are tailored to be completely inoffensive to everyone. As such, they embody the monstrous hybrid of tastes known as middle-of-the-road. The floral fabrics, neutral walls, durable carpets and faux laminates don't create a sense of comfort so much as remove all stimuli. From a design point of view, they are about as daring as a PBS documentary. Still, it is strange to think it was someone's job to furnish this temporary home in which you will be sleeping and/or having sex with a stranger.

Eric Cousineau, whose color photographs are part of the two-person exhibition Empty Spaces at the photo-eye Gallery, has taken notice. With the eye of a modernist painter, his images of hotel room walls examine the odd and sometimes amazing details in these mundane environments. Cousineau sees these rooms as rich with geometric balance and subtle color palettes. Many of the pictures focus on the humorous competition between the decorative and utilitarian aspects of a hotel room, as in "White A/C Unit, Room 7," in which a curtain has been cut away to make room for a vent. Another clever shot depicts a television, a framed artwork and a mirror—for the active, the passive and the narcissistic viewer—all on the same few feet of wall. Through careful framing, the images hone in on the underlying order of the rooms and, with it, a bit of unexpected beauty.

Barbara Diener, whose work makes up the other half of this exhibition, is also a guest of sorts. In one image, she sits on a sofa next to a sweatered man, looking at the child to her left. In another, she is having her dress lifted by a much older man as she removes his tie. In a third, she sits on a bed with her hair in curlers next to a girl in pigtails. But there is something off about these pictures.

By placing ads on Craigslist, Diener finds people who are willing to pose with her at their houses. Once there, she stages tableaus of domestic life using the strangers' homes as an impromptu theater, and the results are darkly funny.

The scenes are composed in long shots, à la Wes Anderson, so the viewer pays equal attention to the surroundings and the figures that appear trapped within them. This has the effect of reducing the actual homes to something more like a backdrop. Some of the decor, such as a large stuffed leopard, are strange enough, but it is the stiffness and the sadness with which the actors relate to each other that seems to be the point. Looking out at the viewer from their tidy confines, they seem to say, "This is me posing for the camera. This is all a pose."

Just as hotels pose as bedrooms, so too do we pose as happy families.

Say cheese.

Empty Spaces
Through Oct. 17

photo-eye Gallery
370 Garcia St.

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