Houses, apartments, trailers, pools and playgrounds are places humans inhabit, but they’re also the sum of their blueprints: plaster and water, metal and plywood, right angles and canted angles, horizontal sprawls and vertical towers.
Carmen Smith is a painter, and Robert Fehre is a photographer, but both share a fascination with this concreteness of property—the geometry of architecture that is so embedded in our lives we no longer notice it. In the aptly titled “A Sense of Place,” Arts Warehouse’s accessible and unfussy new show, these South Florida artists hang side by side by side or cattycorner, unconsciously riffing or commenting on each other’s choices by the nature of the curator’s placement of their canvases.
Sometimes they even appear to be the work of the same artist: At the beginning of the show, Fehre’s photograph “Rooftop,” with its vivid orange and yellow walls meeting at the corner of a roof and an impossibly blue sky dominating the top half of the frame, feels like it derived its colors from a painter’s palette. It hangs next to Smith’s painting “Aqua Door,” one of her trademark captures of a sunlit door and the parallelogram of shadow its awning casts on the ground.
Fehre and Smith share a certain self-reflexivity, in that their images often appear stylized—from the daubs of paint that collect in Smith’s paintings to Fehre’s pointed, subjective framing choices. Where the artists differ is in the nostalgia that Smith’s renderings evoke. She’s drawn, again and again, to clotheslines and swing sets and swimming pools with waterslides, each conjuring wistful memories of American childhood.
Judging by the type of dwellings she focuses on, Smith’s artistic world is essentially working-class, whereas Fehre is more drawn to conspicuous wealth. He photographs yachts and racquetball courts. In “Chateaux Drive,” he shoots a property’s impressive topiary in such a way that it obscures the McMansion behind it. In “Tennis Court,” twin condominiums soar above the title place, flanking a brilliant beam of cloud and sky.
While Smith’s “Johnson Street” obsesses over the correct shadows cast by sagging telephone lines over a modest suburban home, Fehre’s adjacent “Flagler Home” is immaculate and sleek, free of such industrial distractions. In Fehre, you never see the messy stitching of actual habitation; in Smith, the wiring is an essential part of the topography, even when it’s “unpretty.” In Smith, graffiti can deface a storefront, and cars can catch fire.
Indeed, as the show winds to its conclusion, Smith’s nostalgic world frays a bit, and not just from that surprisingly inflamed car engine. In “Little Dream World,” one of her signature waterslides and kidney-shaped pools is just one part of a larger frame, adrift in a purplish abstract miasma. “Birdbath II” is an even more tempestuous merging of representation and abstraction. I didn’t particularly care for these experiments, which stray too far from the thematic genesis of “A Sense of Place;” they suggest the fifth dimension or an alternate universe more than a place a Floridian, or an American, might have seen or populated.
Then again, if there’s another consistency in these artists’ work, it’s the dogged absence of people—as if the presence of the human form would disrupt the elegance of the engineering, the formalism of the scenery. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if we could live in these places. Familiar but a bit off, they exist in our memories, our dreams, our aspirations.
“A Sense of Place” runs through Feb. 25 at Arts Warehouse, 313 N.E. Third St., Delray Beach. Admission is free. Next Thursday, Jan. 17, the Warehouse will host its monthly “Luncheon[Art],” with a food truck and artist-in-residence conversation available from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 561/330-9614 or visit artswarehouse.org.