May 2009, Spatial Division: Karen J. Lange


Spatial Division: Karen J. Lange

On the Chicago’s North Side, the exhibition “Compartmentalized” opened to a packed house on a little tree lined street at the corner of Byron/Ashland. The initial concept was to host a show in an alternative space outside of and far away from the white cube (gallery) system. Because the work requires spatial sub-sections and demarcation to thrive unrestricted, a large home became an ideal investigation. The first major hurdle for the artist to overcome was how to approach the manipulation of a monstrous space and the inherent beauty of a hip contemporary model mansion. To make art thrive in a space of decadence was a built in challenge, fortunately the playful edginess of the work seemed to mock the sterile nature of the high-end light fixtures, Kohler faucets, and the uber-plush hardwood flooring.

To compartmentalize is to break it up, section off, or to piece out into manageable fragments. Therefore, compartmentalization is a process through which we interpret and understand our worlds. The visual artist, Karen Jo Lange describes her work as objects with “no fixed center or ideology”, but becomes a “procurement of painting, sculpture, interaction, installation, and performance.” This discursive approach to making requires a different set of presentation rules. Therefore, the artist decided to exhibit her first major body of multi-modal conceptual objects in a multi-million dollar model home with a multi-sectioned floor plan. Because the process of making these objects employs so many different approaches and a variation of materials, Lange often works on many pieces simultaneously. The compartmentalizing or classification method helps to maintain productivity, this frenetic process steers the artist into seeing certain objects in specific genres. The de-centered logic lumps similar materials with one another causing works of art to have categorical descriptions and distinct characteristics. The art, whose primary quality resembles sculptural paintings, 3D canvases, and modules sit patiently while clinging to walls, floors, and ceilings.

Assigning certain tag’s or themes to each location in the house was significant; the artist redefined activities and directed the interactions for each space. It was plain to see how the entire exhibition benefitted from Lange’s vision of docent led tours and collaborative games. With a little help from her friend’s the artist was able to host the first floor guests while exhibition assistants provided structure to interactive exhibits and participation. Outside of planning an event and training a nimble staff, the artist had to install work that kept the empty house in visual harmony.

Works of art were not specifically created for this house, but as mentioned above, did seem to mock the serious posture of the space. Although unfurnished, you could feel the embarrassment of the structure as it hosted the visual installation. Lange’s Candyland forms and framed out relief sculptures of colonial geography appropriated from Risk taunted the near-by Sub-Zero fridge, Kohler kitchen, and bathroom appliances on the first floor. Upstairs it seemed like Contemporary Art meets Lux-Home, in a room of sketchbooks and cut-ups sprawled across the floor. An adjacent room was situated with interactive play objects and a photo documenting station. In the Meditation Room, wrapped branches and seating utilized diffused natural light and silence for a feeling of contentment in a house of exciting activity. Overall, the house of spectacle and handcrafted visuals worked in unity to convey non-linear approach of Lange’s compartmentalized exhibition.


Anticipating how homes and even how off the grid neighborhoods connote certain emotions for certain people and more specifically how mansions translate to art audiences, Lange had to devise a scheme for accommodating public reception. To transform a flashy house into an art gallery, then an art gallery into a multi-room participatory project space is difficult, but the artist was able to demystify the process. By placing works of art into a house, you inherently and perhaps unconsciously change spatial dynamics, by being aware of this disruption; Lange was able to compensate for our traditional domestic tendencies. Instead of transforming the home into a multi-roomed gallery, the artist generated themes and accurately conceptualized ideas for each room. Bedrooms smartly became things like Meditation Room, Play Room, and Morphed Room, just to name a few.

As I walked around each area, it was hard to imagine a cozy family sitting near-by, but at the same time, it made me question how we use the spaces in our homes and what home even means. The artist most certainly wanted to convey the politics of space and how certain aspects of everyday life (public/private) are constructed from our own social awareness and sense of normalcy. Our notions of house and home come from our parents; it is also built into our American culture. Depending on how our parents successfully made or failed to properly make home is directly how we come to understand domesticity. Moreover, at a time when many in this country are losing their sense of place, this particular house exhibition seems an important symbol of wealth and prosperity. A large symbol of what the upper classes call home. A cultural craving for homeownership is what led to the sub-prime crash, this notion coupled with predatory lending processes brought about this current economic downturn. Although subtle, the artist did not over exaggerate the meaning of this nor did she directly point it out for audiences, but the keen observer would have no trouble making these connections. Although the dominant culture was present, Lange was able to inject her own identity through seemingly harmless but altogether edgy objects.

Keith Brown

​W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.


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