RVW | Shelter
Stained glass and steel express a contemporary narrative around class struggle
By Alisha Sullivan, MFA AC+D ’14
Crystal Schenk’s installation Shelter at Bullseye Gallery confronts the viewer upon entry with an engaging familiarity. The piece, an homage to the most modest of human dwellings, is meticulously crafted out of kilnformed glass and patinated steel. It is a stand-alone, immersive structure that strongly references American pioneer homesteads and rural America, and conjures notions of necessity, class, and our consideration of home. “Shelter” is a deceptively familiar word, one that contains many layers of meaning ranging from the concept of safety and protection from the elements, to notions of homelessness and poverty.
Schenk has crafted Shelter with the utmost attention to detail, and has accounted for every corner, lean, and cracked window with architectural precision. The wooden “slats” are stained glass conformations of brown swirling wood grain that are formed to carefully include moments of imperfection and small light leaks. Those pieces in combination with the painstakingly sculpted variations in the steel of the structure create a balanced and harmonious composition. The effect is luminous and almost spiritually evocative. The eye moves over the structure with the ease of the familiar in an unusual context, and the result is surprisingly comforting. Because of the care with which Schenk created Shelter, and the seductive quality of the glass as it acts as a surrogate for wood, the viewer is able to take the leap of faith needed to connect the piece with a contemporary narrative around class struggle.
Shelter feels like you have stepped out of time into a humble alternate universe where the vernacular is of the abject through the material language is of luxury. The conversation that this material/subject dichotomy brings up is complex, and the fragile and precious material Schenk uses to talk about a harsh existence is weighted with opposition, contradiction, and provocation. Schenk confronts this head-on in her statement, writing that “this is not a romanticization of class struggles or poverty, but rather an acknowledgement of the essence of home.” Classism, poverty, and in particular, shelter are delicate subjects that often trigger strong emotional responses, and Schenk boldly confronts this subject without apologizing or suggesting a solution. She instead honors the challenging situation by acting as witness. It is her respect for every imperfect detail in this piece that takes the viewer on the journey into the present and the past, and allows for the consideration of home, any home, as a sanctuary.