Peeping Tom

While the dualities of public and private are integral to all exhibited work, these opposing poles are most clearly emphasized in Privacy Screen (1997). Undoubtedly the most melancholic work here, the piece is an austere, monumental black screen. It includes a black-and-white painting that is a mere horizontal sliver; while over six feet long, it is only several inches high. Its rendering, as with all other integrated paintings, is of an emotionally detached manner: light-filled subjects are painted flatly and dispassionately. Appropriately, they portray the alienating subject of unpeopled architecture.

The painting shows the Farnsworth House’s glass facade and porch. The vantage point is from the side – perhaps on a neighbour’s lawn, a street corner or in the bushes – and positions the viewer as a voyeur or “Peeping Tom.” Van Halm directs voyeurism to reinforce her argument that domestic, particularly suburban, architecture invites public scrutiny, and that this conflicts with architecture’s true status as private property, a status straightforwardly referenced by the piece being titled a “privacy screen.” Further, Van Halm’s discourse on the private made public by the ilusionism of van der Rohe, incites the feminist commentary underlying all of this work, a commentary on how architecture brings domestic space, women’s space traditionally, into the public socio-political sphere. Clearly, modernism here has failed to overpower the underlying discourses it tried to shelve away. This house, commissioned by a woman but remaining in the masculine field of architecture and the male architect, instead of liberating the private, or feminine space, opens up and violates it. Van Halm suggests that such patriarchal voyeurism, clearly invited in the Farnsworth House, is ultimately unfulfilled, since what is actually seen is her unpeopled portrayal of the house.

From within a feminist frame, Renee Van Halm’s exhibition incites a complex and effective interplay between desire and disappointment and between public and private issues in modernism. Van Halm is strongest when her references and significations are as subtle as the porthole’s representation of voyeurism.

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