Curator David Voelkel reportedly was rattled upon joining a meeting in progress at the Valentine Richmond History Center. His colleagues were reviewing proposals with Virginia Commonwealth University students for conceptual art installations at the achingly elegant, but staid period rooms of the Wickham House.
Raewyn Martyn, a graduate painting major, asked if she could cover a chair from the collection with latex paint.
Say what? Apparently there was a gap between this artist's understanding of a museum's conservation obligations and, at least at that point, the Valentine staff's complete commitment to installing contemporary, site-specific art throughout the mansion.
Built in 1812 by wealthy lawyer John Wickham for his large family from plans by prominent Boston architect Alexander Parris, the meticulously restored classical revival landmark is popular for its walled, boxwood garden, a warm-weather lunchtime oasis amid the VCU medical complex. But some people find the house's elegantly furnished interior frozen in time and not particularly accessible intellectually or emotionally.
"Nationwide, house museums are struggling, there's declining attendance," Valentine Director William Martin says. "Our challenge is: How do we take this amazing house and reactivate it — re-energize it — for the next generation?"
One response emerged from Martin's numerous conversations with university President Michael Rao, who was looking for ways to create linkages between VCU's split campus. Working with Joseph Siepel, dean of the arts school, some 150 students from across disciplines visited the museum to examine the Wickham manse, scour its vast collections and propose ways to animate what already were some of Richmond's most beautiful rooms.
The often sublime responses of 11 artists are evident in "Wickham House 200: Inspiring New Art Two Centuries Later," an installation that runs through April.
In some rooms the artists took such traditional approaches as painting a picture or crafting an object. Other pieces are more cerebral. Two works channel daylight from reflective surfaces while another offers a recording of slightly garbled songs.
And while the installations respect the historic spaces they occupy, many works pack significant psychological and emotional wallop because they channel the existences of slaves who worked here.
Sohail Abdullah's "Perpetual Dusk" is a light installation in a basement room where a butler named Robin worked. Abdullah's slide projection references the always changing light from a window that Robin seldom experienced, because his duties offered little reflective time.
Bethany Gingrich's "Signs of Wealth," installed nearby, is more physical in execution but equally poignant. The crafts and materials major has sewn a slave woman's garment of deteriorating fabric scraps and placed it on a dress form at the foot of the service staircase. The ghostlike figure stands in perpetual, uneasy anticipation of her mistress's next request.
"The students were really struck by the two extremes of the groups of people [rich and enslaved] who lived here," says Jackie Finney Mullins, the Valentine registrar and collections manager who worked closely with the artists. "They couldn't believe the level of wealth that the Wickhams enjoyed. They found the lavish architecture of the house overwhelming."
Veronika Pausova's "A Two Month Long Christmas at the Wickham's," in the butler's office, is a still-life painting inspired by seeing the formal dining room decked out for the holidays. "Staging what is already staged," Pausova says in her artist statement, the painting reflects not only how the Wickhams lived, but also how the Valentine interpreted how the Wickhams entertained.
On the main floor, three other artists evoke Wickham family members directly. In John Wickham's somberly lighted library, Nicolas Irzyk offers visitors a take-home 11-by-17-inch printed sheet of a "likeness" of the lawyer. The image was culled from a portrait that hangs in the room plus other images of Wickham. It delivers a haunting and Lucha Libre masklike effect.
Elizabeth Wickham's image is reflected dreamily in a highly layered, painting-on-glass by Lili Un. It's observed at close range by a headless mannequin wearing a silk dress from the early 1800s.
Also on the upper two floors are some whimsical responses to the house. Sacha Ingber, in poking around the museum's holdings, apparently was struck by a lowly potato peeler. Her refashioned interpretation of the awkwardly shaped device pops up in three locations. One version, covered in gold, sits on the mantle of the ladies' parlor. It is inconspicuous enough to be missed. Another rendition, displayed in the entry hall, is globbily painted in the shades of reds and green found in the parlor. Upstairs, a third peeler decorated with faux jewels has been dubbed "Bedazzled" by the museum staff.
And what of Raewyn Martyn's proposal to introduce latex paint into the situation?
The once skeptical curator, Voelkel, jumped on board. He combed area shops and thrift stores for a period-appropriate chair for Martyn's use. In the upstairs boys' room, in "From the Window," a large sheet of latex is draped over a wooden chair. The medium delivers a shimmering translucency to the hard surfaces of the room. And the exquisite folds of the latex become every bit as classical — like Greek statuary — as any perfectly proportioned piece of architectural detailing in the house.
In "From the Window," as in other pieces, including works by Andrea Vail, Celina Suh, Adriane Connerton and Rachel Cohn, contemporary artists prove that even a 200-year old house and its inhabitants can speak across time. S