In his brilliant 2012 book ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’, Andrew Solomon offers a theory of ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ identities. Vertical identities are inherited down the line; i.e. parental expectations, culture and ethnicity, socio-economic status, etc. But, especially for children with physical, mental and social disabilities and differences, there is a horizontal identity that diverges radically from the vertical identity, upsetting perceived societal notions of balance.
Society’s knee-jerk reaction is to somehow “correct” or “generalize” this haecceity, which pathologizes difference and concretizes the hierarchies of the “normal” to preserve the status quo. My experience is that this is a universal condition, even for children who come from loving and supportive families. We all have ways of inhabiting space outside the norm, and the world’s bewilderment of it and attempts to undo or rationalize it create painful wounds in children that can range from awkwardness in his own skin to neuroses in their own right.
This situation is poignant and often agonizing in “Jona Frank: Model Home,” a lavish four-piece conceptual installation on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through June 5.
The more time one spends in these galleries, the more one appreciates the astonishing level of detail that Frank conjured up to tell the story of his childhood in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It also bears witness to the power of memory and the indelible psychic imprints left by parents who, constrained by their own conceptions of what should be done – and by the aspirations they often experience through their children – unconsciously stifle the natural life force of their offspring.
In the exhibition catalog – an offbeat hybrid of essays, interviews and autobiography – Anne Collins Goodyear (co-director, with her husband Frank Goodyear, of the museum) describes Frank’s mother, Rose, as a “presence towering” and Jona Frank’s relationship with her. as “a young woman’s struggle to survive the overwhelming pressures of alienating mythologies of hyperfemininity and hyperdomesticity represented by her overbearing mother”.
Frank’s main medium is photography, and she fills the galleries with large-format images in bright, deliciously saturated colors. They feature meticulously crafted tableaus in which actress Laura Dern plays Rose and three actresses stand in for Frank at different ages.
But installation is much more than simple photography. Frank worked with designer Alex Kalman to create an immersive experience meant to replicate the suffocating environment of the Cherry Hill house, with a doll-sized reproduction of it centering one of the galleries. If we look into the house through its tiny windows, we see real home movies from Frank’s childhood. The rest of the images are, excitingly, a creative artifice that underscores the performative nature of our personalities, who do what is asked, not always what is felt. Kalman and Frank also collaborated with others – from graphic designers to pastry chef – on different aspects of the installation.
Entering the gallery triggers the ringing of a wall telephone hanging to our right. This device kicks off the story of Frank’s childhood, starting in elementary school, when his teacher phoned Rose to tell her that young Jona refused to draw anything in art class. Dern’s Rose, wearing a bright daisy print housecoat, looks upset and worried. She cut coupons on the kitchen table. But right away, we notice something’s wrong: the scissors are weirdly, deathly big, and Rose’s dress matches the wallpaper.
We read in “Cherry Hill,” the similar hybrid catalog accompanying the first phase of this project, that once Rose hung up on the art teacher, Frank tried to explain himself by saying, “The paper is perfect . I love watching it and I don’t want to spoil it. To which Rose, who was clearly clinging to her propriety as a means of keeping her fragile instability at bay, replied, “When your class goes to the art room, you will draw something on the paper. I don’t want to receive any more calls from the school! And, thus, the horizontal identity is exposed…and its suffocation begins.
We feel Frank’s isolation and the constant frustration of her helpless struggle to be seen for who she is, repeatedly in the galleries. There is an image of her as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”, standing outside a shingled colonial house wearing an elegant dress which, as in Hawthorne’s novel, is adorned with an “A”. (In the book “Cherry Hill”, this image follows Frank’s retelling of an episode in 10th grade when she asked a boy to see the movie “Poltergeist” with her and Rose reacted “as if I had offered my virginity”.) the photograph, Frank writhes uncomfortably on a makeshift stage as eight incarnations of Rose stare disapprovingly from all angles. It hurts to look at this photo.
There are tense scenes between mother and daughter in the car and at the table in the daisy-carpeted room. One particularly harrowing sequence records an argument in Rose’s bedroom where, finally, Frank withdraws, his head bowed in shame, and looks at his mother, who is hopelessly lost in her own disappointment. There are few words throughout the installation, but here the message is heartbreaking: “I was his lucky charm. I was so scared, I shivered. I couldn’t tell him the truth.
Aleix Pons Oliver’s Toile wallpapers work as additional narrative tools. Upon closer inspection, we realize that these are strange amalgamations of images from Frank’s memory – from her First Communion, the sitcoms she watched, the reports aired on television, the works of art that influenced her. There are crucifixes in the trees from which hang figures of the Virgin Mary as Christmas decorations. Beneath another tree, Patty Hearst brandishes her gun next to distraught Henry Winkler character “The Fonz” from the TV show “Happy Days.” In another canvas motif, Frank stands head and shoulders sunk in a simulacrum of the Cherry Hill split-level house, effectively reinterpreting “Woman House,” Louise Bourgeois’ famous sculptural critique of domesticity.
By the time we reach the final room – dominated by a wall-sized lightbox image showing the aftermath of a disastrous ride, Frank and his friends have taken an irresponsible young adult’s convertible – he s a lot has happened. There was a birthday party at a table laden with cakes baked by Eggy Ding (pastry chef at Rose Foods in Portland) that spell “You’re not enough.” Frank’s brother, Mark, a gay man who was less successful in navigating his conservative Catholic upbringing than Frank, had two nervous breakdowns (he eventually died of an overdose). And the house on Garfield Avenue in Cherry Hill was incinerated by fire, which looks like some sort of exorcism.
Sound dramatic? It’s… thrilling. But there are also moments of absurd humor. And one piece, titled “Open Road,” deals with Frank’s eventual escape from the suffocating confines of Cherry Hill. My reaction in that room was to take a huge breath, to fill my lungs to capacity because I could. Which underscores the power of Frank’s ability to tell his story of confinement and release, of maternal mental instability and personal emotional health, of conflict and resolution. It is the process that each of us – beautifully and inevitably – is engaged in for our entire lives: enlightenment, healing, reconciliation, understanding, compassion and, hopefully, peace.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]