August 4th, 2011 by Clark Humphrey

You still have a chance to view the five “MadHomes” along Bellevue Avenue E. They’re open to the public until this Sunday, Aug. 7, noon to 7 p.m. each day.

These house-sized art installations are the brainchild of Alison Milliman. Her organization, MadArt, is dedicated (according to its web site, madartseattle.com) “to bring art into our lives in unexpected ways, and to create community involvement in the arts.”

MadArt curated last year’s sculpture show in Cal Anderson Park and a store-window art display in Madison Park.

But MadHomes vastly outscales either of those projects.

The show’s contributing artists have taken the outsides of the four houses and the insides of three of them (one was still occupied as a residence), plus their front yards and side setbacks, as a three-dimensional canvas, as a setting for “site specific” and interactive works meant to last only three weeks.

And because the houses are going away (to be replaced by a long-delayed condo project). the artists didn’t have to leave the structures the same way they found them.

This meant Allan Packer, one of the show’s artists, could cut holes in floors, walls, and ceilings, from which his cut-out animal figures emerge to greet visitors (as aided by large mechanical devices mainly hidden in the basement).

It also meant Meg Hartwig could freely nail big wood scraps to both a house and to a tree in front of it (which will also be lost to the condo project).

You’ll also see a lot of work that plays in less “invasive” ways with its setting.

These include the SuttonBeresCuller trio’s “Ties That Bind,” comprising 12,000 feet of red straps winding back and forth through one house and along a setback to a second house, creating a labyrinth through the side yard.

They also include Troy Gua’s “Chrysalis (Contents May Shift In Transit),” in which one house has been entirely covered in shrink wrap with a giant bar code sticker.

There are also pieces that could theoretically be re-installed elsewhere upon MadHomes’ conclusion.

One of these is Allyce Wood’s “Habitancy.” She’s mounted “tension-wound” string on and between upstairs walls in one of the houses, depicting silhouettes of imagined former occupants (including at least one dog).

Another is Laura Ward’s “Skin.” Ward painted one of the houses with latex rubber, then peeled it off, then stitched those molded pieces into a smaller replica of the house, placed over a tent-like frame.

None of this would have been possible without the gracious cooperation of the houses’ current owner, the development company Point32. That company’s going to turn the quarter-block into one long three-story building and an adjoining six-story building at the lot’s north side. The project will adjoin and incorporate the existing Bel Roy Apartments at the northeast corner of Bellevue and East Roy Street.

MadHomes has also drawn the approval of the lot’s previous owner, Walt Riehl. He happens to be an arts supporter and a member of the Pratt Fine Arts Center’s board.

Besides being a fun and creative big spectacle, MadHomes means something.

It’s a call for more whimsy and joy in the everyday urban landscape.

Especially now that the new-construction boom has resumed after a two-plus year pause, at least on Capitol Hill.

So many of the big residential and mixed-use projects built on the Hill in the previous decade lack these very elements.

Oh sure, a lot of them are all modern and upscale looking, with clean lines, snazzy cladding, and exterior patterns that make every effort to hide the buildings’ boxy essences.

But there’s something missing in a lot of these places. That something could be described as adventure, delight, or fun.

I’m not asking for huge conceptual art components, of a MadHomes scale, installed into every new development. That wouldn’t be practical.

But there could be little touches that attract a passing eye and give a momentary lift to a tired soul.

POSTSCRIPT: Eugenia Woo sees MadHomes as not a temporary artistic triumph but an urban preservation defeat. At the blog Main 2 (named for an old Seattle telephone exchange), Woo states that the homes, while under-maintained in recent years, could and should have been kept:

Everyday (vernacular) houses for everyday people represent Seattle’s neighborhoods. The drive for increase urban density does not always have to come at the price of preservation and neighborhood character.

(Cross posted with the Capitol Hill Times. Thanks to Marlow Harris of SeattleTwist.com.)

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