Time Stops for “Open House”
A cursory glance at one of Andrew Raftery’s “Open House” prints won’t give you much: it’ll seem like an ornate but affectless domestic scene, nothing more. Take a closer look at the prints as a whole, however, and you’ll be fascinated—maybe even frightened—by the meticulous craftsmanship and contextual detail on display. Thankfully, the current Davison Art Center exhibit on “Open House” makes sure to give viewers a complete tour of Raftery’s obsessive process.
Raftery, one of the most famous contemporary copperplate engraving artists in the world and an Associate Professor of Printmaking at RISD, discussed the six years he spent working on “Open House” at a talk on Sept. 18. Strongly influenced by seventeenth century French engraver Claude Mellan, he uses the age-old medium to depict insanely specific contemporary worlds. “Open House” consists of five simultaneous scenes in a house for sale: different prints show us the entrance hall, dining room, kitchen, upstairs hallway, and master bedroom. Through careful selection of objects and blocking of actors, Raftery presents a frozen moment in 2006, pre-housing-bubble-collapse, that serves as an elaborate deconstruction of the Rhode Island upper class world he knows (Raftery listed the social satires of Jane Austen and Christopher Isherwood as among his biggest influences).
The setting of the house itself is exhaustively realized: Raftery could probably tell you the make and brand of every object on display. Here are some examples of what he does with this precision: scene one, which takes place in the house’s entrance hall, features two real works of art on the walls behind the actors, David Hockne’s “Paper Pools” and Robert Maplethorpe’s “Orchid.” These two works, both by gay men and spanning the ’80s, contextualize the house’s former owners as art collectors of a specific era and circle.
Scenes two and three—the dining room and kitchen—show more of their extensive ’80s art collection, Reich furniture, an Ellesse silver tea and coffee set, a Michael Graves/Alessi Design Factory tea kettle, and a really good cappuccino machine. For those able to engage with the cultural contexts behind these belongings, the richness of the owners’ personalities—and the prospective buyers’ lax engagements with them—provide the work’s satirical bent and artistic achievement. The central irony of Raftery’s scrupulous process depicting the buyers’ casual indifference is impressive, even moving if dwelled upon.
If this level of detail overwhelms you, the Davison exhibit will help you understand how Raftery managed to put “Open House” together. Where some artists prefer secrecy with respect to their processes, Raftery is an open book: we see body and object sketches of each scene (just several of what were dozens), and the floor is dominated by scale 3D papier-mache sculptures of the whole house. The exhibit also contains a brief documentary on Raftery’s printmaking, along with the copper plates used for one of Raftery’s reproductions of Francesco Primaticcio’s “Hermaphrodite on the Clouds, Teaching Cupid to Shoot an Arrow.” Seeing the art historical roots of Raftery’s process should cue lay viewers into his mysterious fascination.
Speaking on why he has settled into such a hyperrealistic, unemotional mode of representation, Raftery closed his talk, saying “I do it because it continues to be so interesting. I never know where it’s going to take me. I’m certainly not an obsessive compulsive person, because I really want to see it come into being.”