The lobby of the Elmhurst Art Museum is full with a dozen or so miniature wooden houses, perfect for dolls or birds with a taste for culture. The domestic sculptures are the work of the late Don Baum, who sometimes constructed them from mahjongg tiles, linoleum or goatskin, but mostly from cut-up junk shop paintings.
Folksy yet knowing, Baum's iconic "Domus" series makes a subtler prelude to "Open House: Art About Home" than it might at first seem. In this, the first show organized by Staci Boris in her new position as chief curator of the Elmhurst Art Museum, a handful of mostly local artists present sculptures, paintings and photographs on that most broad and familiar subject.
The introductory assemblages, which Baum began in the early 1980s, present cookie-cutter cottage silhouettes with breadboards for bases, riffing on home as hearth. But covered with kitschy paint-by-number pictures of shipwrecks, bugle boys, saints, Parisian street scenes and wild animals, often mismatched from inside to out, they mystify any direct notion of dwelling. In its place come the metaphorical possibilities of shelter — for ideas, humor, whimsy, experiment, affection — and a meditation on the difference between interior and exterior appearances.
Preambles aside, and Baum's is certainly a historic treat and tribute, there are two outright stars of "Open House": Ann Toebbe's obsessively detailed cut-paper collages of kitchens and dining rooms, and Alberto Aguilar's madcap installations of borrowed household goods. Both artists take the prosaic topic of home and remake its all-too-recognizable walls and windows, bookshelves and knickknacks in forms as inventive as they are accessible.
Also included are Gabrielle Garland's small, foppish oils of apartmenttherapy.com eye candy; Alyssa Miserendino's documentary investigation of homelessness from the point of view of the home; and Martin Hyers and William Mebane's "EMPIRE," a dismal series of 9,000-plus photographs of ugly stuff owned by random people across the country. Were it not so high-res and severely displayed, their 38-picture selection could be mistaken for Craigslist.
Working from family recollections, Toebbe creates interior views of her parents' dining room, her father's childhood home, her grandfather's kitchen and even her husband's ex-wife's living room and kitchen. Some are meticulously painted with a miniaturist's brush, and others composed almost entirely of hundreds of pieces of finely cut paper. Everything looks guileless initially and dizzying ultimately, in part because what appears painted can turn out to be paper and vice versa; and anything seen through glass — windows, vases, light fixtures — fragments into stunning shards.
But it is Toebbe's unique approach to perspective that finally unhinges. Everything presents head-on, full size, and yet oriented to the wall behind it. Imagine a dollhouse with flat paper furnishings, and then imagine blowing the dollhouse open from its center, so that each wall and everything near it fell down backward. There is no focal point, only a center from which all objects tumble away calmly, some upside down, others sideways, as if nothing much were happening.
Filled as they are with this plant and that sewing machine, those cookie jars and that dinette set, this lace doily and that portable phone, Toebbe's rooms describe the tastes and lifestyles of very particular individuals, present in all but body. Running concurrently at Ebersmoore gallery in Chicago's West Loop, however, a terrific show of the artist's most recent work features some of those absent people. The extent to which they fit their homes and their homes fit them will spook even the most devoted homemakers.
Aguilar, the Elmhurst museum's artist-in-residence, continues a series of artworks he began in 2006 that are as pragmatic as they are whimsical. The "Domestic Monuments" stack unrelated household items in formally pleasing configurations that replace functionality with fantasy and discover aesthetic potential in every room.
The sculptures were initially assembled in the homes of willing Elmhurst residents who generously allowed Aguilar to borrow their hockey sticks, folding chairs, rolltop desks, stacking tables, gym mats, bird cages and trash cans. Where are those folks sitting or working in the meantime? Who knows.
The sensible aspect of this project has never been in the sculptures themselves but rather in their economy of means. Think an artist needs a separate studio and specialized materials? Think art making is incompatible with busy family life? Think again. The "Domestic Monuments" are just that — monuments to the domestic, and monuments made out of domestic situations.
New is how distinctly Aguilar's assemblages register as art with a capital "A," thanks to their pristine gallery setting. Previously, the artist displayed only photographs shot in situ of individual monuments built temporarily in the homes of family, friends and colleagues, where they remained happily and radically confused with their natural surroundings.
Similarly charming disruption occurs in McCormick House, the 1950s Mies van der Rohe-designed residence that forms one wing of the museum and in whose pristinely furnished living space Aguilar was able to install a single, dense pile of his family's laundry basket, end table, dresser, clothes rack, desk, houseplant and more. Uncanny and totally unexpected harmonies of color and order reverberate between these goods and the period ones on display. Good modernists will shudder.
But which is truer to the art of home today: pristinely arranged Knoll and Eames furnishings or a playful reorganization of odds and ends from Ikea, Rubbermaid and the Salvation Army? It depends where you live, but the odds are on the latter.
"Open House: Art About Home" runs through April 20 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst, 630-834-0202, elmhurstartmuseum.org
"Ann Toebbe: The Inheritance" through March 30 at Ebersmoore, 350 N. Ogden Ave., Chicago, 312-772-3021, ebersmoore.com
Lori Waxman is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute.