Andrew Raftery: Open House
Ends Dec. 9, Wesleyan University's Davison Art Center, 301 High St., Middletown, (860) 685-2500, wesleyan.edu/dac
It's always fascinating and a bit consoling when an artist, especially one with the delicacy and taste of engraver Andrew Raftery, resurrects an old technique to tackle modern subjects. Andrew Raftery: Open House, on view through Dec. 9 at Wesleyan's Davison Art Center, is more than an exhibition of Raftery's masterful prints; it's practically a how-to tutorial on copper-plate engraving.
Raftery, a professor of printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design, spent six years planning this series of five scenes. Harking back to a 17th-century Dutch art tradition called "genre scenes," he reimagines a 21st-century activity, "the commonplace activity of shopping for a new home." His model for depicting this otherwise all too painfully familiar scene of real estate consumption is Claude Mellan (1598-1688), and Raftery makes the connection clear by selecting some original prints by Mellan from Wesleyan's holdings to display alongside his own.
What seems simple in the description — five scenes of an open house in a two-story residence — is augmented by everything Raftery used to create them over the six years of working on this project: 3-D architectural models he built of wood and painted a pristine white, cast-resin human models, sketches, washes and engraved proofs.
In the first of the five scenes, prospective buyers enter a capacious living room area where a real estate agent bows in supplication ("crouches," Raftery calls it) as he hands house plans to an interested older couple. The older couple seems to quizzically eye a younger couple who have just entered the door and may be expressing a competitive interest, adding tension to what would otherwise seem a mundane moment. "Are these young people already pushing us into our graves?" you imagine the older folks thinking.
The second scene takes place in a dining area, and Raftery's intense attention to telling details, right down to the type of table, china and prints, speaks volumes about the home sellers. In the third scene, an upper-middle-class couple and their infants lounge around a kitchen area while another real estate agent, sporting painfully hip crocs and adopting a too-chummy manner, chatters on, no doubt about the various hidden perks of this particular perfect yuppie home.
The fourth and fifth scenes, however, are the masterpieces. The former takes place in an upstairs hallway, as large numbers of perfect strangers leaf through cabinets and poke at Christmas ornaments stashed in the way back of a closet. It's a far more complicated picture than at first glance, depicting, as Raftery notes, "five spaces converging" — two sets of stairs and three rooms. The fifth scene is in the master bedroom, where five people, all upper middle-class and white, wander around, pawing through cabinets, checking themselves out in the mirror, snooping in closets and under the bed. It's creepy in a way that perhaps Raftery did not intend, like a swarm of human hornets defiling the place of greatest intimacy in a home. Or perhaps they are vultures circling for a kill. But casually dressed and very well-mannered vultures.
The glue that holds the various pieces of the show together is a video that visitors can watch on a laptop computer while listening on headphones. This video, which is unusually good and informative as these things go, allows Raftery to show and tell how he creates his engravings. He demonstrates, almost like a Bob Vila home-improvement episode, each step in the making of a print from the copper plate.
Which gets back to the point about Raftery's work being consoling. His devotion to ancient methods is one more hedge against the brave new world of the future, where everything is digitized and instantly reproducible and, well, empty and hollow somehow. For just a few moments, walking through Open House, you can fantasize that you are back in an ink-stained, badly lit studio with William Blake, pulling angels out of thin air.