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A House's Eye

"Fargo Frame 01: East Facade Mannequin," 2013
"Fargo Furnishing 03: Director Chair House Duplex," 2012-13.

Dennis Maher’s artwork at Hallwalls

It looks like chaos on first view, Dennis Maher’s art. But so can nature look like chaos. As in the typhoon in the Philippines, and before that the hurricane on the East Coast. Yet nature, we say, is orderly. Obeying laws of nature, laws of physics. Such as the law of conservation of matter. Lives are lost, but not matter, though matter may be substantially rearranged.

Maher’s art obeys the same laws. And that law in particular. Conservation of matter. Nothing is lost, though just about everything substantially rearranged. It looks like a typhoon or hurricane hit it.

An exhibit of his art is currently on view at Hallwalls Gallery. It all relates to his house on Fargo Avenue that he is making over. Radically. Or as he explains it, is making itself over, with his help. As artist, he is an active agent in the process, but the house is an agent, too, and prime mover.

“All matter is fluid” and “space and matter are engaged are in a continuous process of forming and being formed,” he says, echoing formulations of the first philosophers, the pre-Socratics. Heraclitus et al.

The pre-Socratics blended in a dollop of understandable mysticism—given that they were probing for the first time on record the mysteries of nature—with their philosophical speculations, and Maher does this, too. He describes himself—his role as artist—as “a conduit,” a “director of the flow.” His function to participate in the forming and being formed process, and to document it. The work on view at Hallwalls exemplifies both of these functions.

But his most conceptually aesthetically extreme assertion or revelation regarding the Fargo house project—but it seems with redoubtable philosophical/scientific, indeed, mathematical, underpinning—that what is happening there, the forming and being formed, is replicated in the community at large, the city. Not vaguely and in general replicated, but more or less exactly.

“Every fragment [of the artwork, of the subject structure, the house, that in its current condition of makeover—but this could well be semi-permanent condition—is notably fragmented] becomes a model of the larger whole,” he says. The larger whole being the house, then the city. “The scales of house and city converge.”

The mathematical underpinning being fractal mathematics. Fractals are objects or phenomena that display self-similarity at different scales. The parts mimic the whole, the whole mimics the parts, potentially to infinity in both directions. It applies to physical and economic and social/political phenomena. As enumerated by Benoit Mandelbrot, the math wizard most associated with its invention, to the configuration of mountains, coastlines, rivers, clouds, the distribution of galaxies in the universe, the volatility of financial markets, the different vocabularies of different writers. Etc. Mandelbrot described fractal math as “beautiful, damn hard, and increasingly useful.” He also invented its descriptive term, “fractal,” from the same Latin root as “fragment.”

James Gleick, the author a few years back of a book entitled Chaos: Making a New Science, said of Mandelbrot, with reference to his invention of fractal math, he “let us appreciate chaos in all its glory—the noisy, the wayward, and the freakish, from the very small to the very large.”

Most of the pieces in the Hallwalls show are straightforward representations—some in two dimensions, some in three—of the chaos of the makeover. Jumbles of parts and bits and pieces of the house and presumable content, transformed or being transformed—a Romance language could employ a reflexive verb here, to properly convey the active agency of the material sense—into something new. But also recalling and recording everything old. All or much or what was.

But one piece is different from the rest. The centerpiece, in fact. A kind of orrery, mechanical model of the movements of the planets of the solar system, but with house makeover items in place of the planets. Evoking the fractal math property of universal application at different scales—to infinity—of the Fargo house project. As well as the project of mathematician and mystic Johannes Kepler, who first correctly calculated the planetary orbits, and constructed a pre-mechanical physical model of the solar system—an elegant toy consisting of nested shells of regular polygons—in his endeavor to discover the motive principle of a universe that that did not seem to function according to the old paradigm of a sole rational consciousness directing the arrangement and operation of an assemblage of presumably unconscious matter. Motive principle something like the reflexive verb. (Galileo is said to have said, about the Earth planet: “Eppur si move.”)

What began as a house preservation project grew and evolved into a project that connects past, present, and future, and time and space, combining elements of an archeological dig and city planning in a visionary model for community reorganization on a grand scale. Lots going on here.

The Dennis Maher exhibit at Hallwalls continues through December 20

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