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Patrick Robideau's "Hallway" and the Curator-as-raccoon

Inside and outside Patrick Robideau's "Hallway."

The Space Between Us

Eleven years ago, I had the rare experience of participating in a performance/installation called Happy’s Nightmare, a collaboration between Patrick Robideau and Kurt von Voetsch at the UB Art Gallery. My participation evolved from writing about the piece to writing in the piece. The dramatis personae might have read, “Eric Jackson-Forsberg: himself,” as I was acting as a writer or curator, installed in an obscure mezzanine of Robideau’s construction and running interference for von Voetsch’s performance. The notes I produced in this “office,” smudged with the grimy patina produced by the two artists’ materials, became the raw material of a later catalog essay, a textual by-product of the experience.

Hallway—Robideau’s current installation at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center—gave me an opportunity to revisit the uncanny spaces that Robideau crafts, without the immersive experience that attended Happy’s Nightmare. But, not wanting to offer dry, detached observations on the experience of Hallway, I looked to Robideau’s comments at the exhibition opening for a conceptual way into the construction. It came when he recounted the story of finding that a family of raccoons had moved into the crawlspace beneath his bedroom at the Mill, a family property in Niagara County. Unlike some who would immediately call a 24-hour exterminator, Robideau made his peace with the raccoons, seeing himself on equal footing with them; they were both squatters of sorts. Like much of Robideau’s installation work, his quarters at the Mill are established at the convergence of industrial, residential, and natural space. With my literal and symbolic position in Happy’s Nightmare in mind, it struck me that in this autobiographical space-as-metaphor, I am part of the raccoon family. As a writer and curator, I occupy spaces between artists and their audience; I am a back-office facilitator, a benevolent thief of ideas that occupies studio, gallery, and cyberspace. With this whimsical point of departure, I proceeded to explore Hallway.

It may be worth noting here that my iPhone (and clumsy texting skills) attempted to auto-correct “Robideau” to “To ideas.” Beneath the meticulous detail and applied patina of Robideau’s work is a spirit of minimalism: He leaves ample space for the audience and all the baggage it brings to the experience. In this sense, his spaces may encourage exploration and lead us toward ideas, but never seem to take us all the way. Tantalizing but unsettling, these spaces draw us in by virtue of what remains unseen—the rooms of the mansion that remain closed, the secret passageways unexplored. When interacting with Robideau’s spaces, we all are inquisitive, opportunistic animals, subject to what Robideau describes as an “uneasy occupation of space.” What these spaces represent is a sense of melancholic abandonment, but it’s never clear whether that condition is permanent. Are we welcome here? Is the space indifferent to our re-occupation?

The sense of uneasiness omnipresent in Hallway is highly strategic, accomplished by the low light and dark surfaces, but also by the pervasive clash of familiar and uncanny architectural space: The passage turns and turns again; murky points of light, some emanating from baseboard registers, lead to dead ends; we look into diorama-like spaces, but cannot enter. Hallway may be a nod to the spatially based name of Hallwalls itself, but we’re hard-pressed to find a reference to any of Hallwalls’ real estate here. Instead, as curator John Massier points out, Robideau seems hell-bent on obliterating Hallwalls’s main gallery. The installation’s nesting of space is particularly appropriate to Hallwalls’s gallery, which itself is a renovated bay of the former Asbury Delaware Avenue Methodist Church—a white cube of exhibition space inserted into the gloomy, glowering forest of the church’s neogothic structure. It’s only when we complete the “dark ride” of Hallway and emerge in the far corner of the gallery that we’re re-introduced to the “real” space of the gallery. Here, as in many of his previous installation works, Robideau tips his hand by revealing the materials and structure he employs to create his architectural simulacra. The audience is invited behind the scenes, and to me, this backstage portion of the experience is nearly as fascinating as the main space. Specifically, I was drawn to the negative space between the installation and a curved section of the gallery wall, a rift reminiscent of the ambiguous space between the Burchfield rotunda and studio wall at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (where Robideau is the senior preparator). By lifting the veil on his work, Robideau accentuates its impermanence, alluding to the transience of his installations and temporal limitations of all architecture.

The models in the exhibition further emphasize the artificiality of the life-sized main installation. The largest model, an absurdly vertical cross between a grain elevator and a tenement, presents a repetition of impressive yet abject detail from one floor to another. All of the windows in this structure seem to be blacked-out; however, upon closer inspection, one of them reveals a cave-like interior, akin to the lower level of Happy’s Nightmare. Peering into this “room,” we find that the cave is surmounted by an oval balustrade, another uncanny juxtaposition of natural and artificial interiors. This microcosm plays out at full scale in the central room of the Hallway installation: a parlor with a gallery above, protected by an oval balustrade. This is another one of Robideau’s paradoxical spaces, equally inviting and foreboding. Our attention is drawn to a light source in the inaccessible upper gallery, but it emanates from a high, grated window akin to the diabolical, glowing attic windows in The Amityville Horror. The other light source in the parlor comes from a small passage at floor level. Intrepid visitors can get down on hands and knees and enter this small passage. The claustrophobia-inducing space turns and quickly dead-ends in a diorama displaying a smaller version of the tenement model. Robideau’s play with various scales and shifts across the haptic spectrum convey the message that buildings capture time and memory, but only through illusions wrought in wood, metal and glass.

In the far corner of the gallery, an annex of space between Hallwall’s offices and the exit, a final sculpture hangs suspended by wire: a small suitcase, exploded to reveal a small, black-patinated model of a cabin. The message here is fairly clear: our concept of buildings is portable, part of the baggage that we all carry around. The memory of the house we grew up in or the ominous, abandoned house at the end of the lane is a highly detailed yet artificial thing. We move away from these spaces and on to others that we may inhabit for a time. But in the end, they’re all ephemeral; they’re all models at various scales.

I am well aware that in this review, I have given relatively little of the particulars of Hallway. My deliberate obscurity may be appropriate to the inherently experiential nature of the work. I hope to encourage readers to visit and explore the installation for themselves. Hallway may be a symphony on the theme of Rust Belt abandonment and an exemplar of interactive installation that balances process and product. It is not, however, a work that can be adequately described by one curious raccoon to another.

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