In Home Front, Francis Cape continues his exploration of Hurricane Katrina’s lasting effect on the New Orleans landscape. His examination began with the series Waterline, photographs created two months after the 2005 disaster that document the consistent waterline staining the inner and outer walls of homes in the Gentilly and St. Roch neighbourhoods. In another project he paired photographs of damaged homes taken shortly after the hurricane with images of the same locations two years later—in most cases, they unsurprisingly remained virtually unchanged.
In the current body of work, Cape combines this ongoing concern with his strong interest in carpentry. He perceives furniture objects as an expression of social predicaments—products of aesthetic and functional choices that have been created within a particular societal context. Home Front focuses specifically on the furniture that was designed following the Blitz in England under the auspices of the Utility Furniture Scheme. Founded in 1942 by the British government, this committee was responsible for establishing a standardized and fiscally efficient design of essential furniture items that could quickly replace the belongings demolished in the disaster.
In the exhibition, various poplar furniture objects including a chair, dresser, and table are displayed alongside photographs of discarded personal belongings in New Orleans and Northeastern towns. Other photographs present examples of ironic utilitarian environments such as Trailer with Ramp (2006) , an image of a handicap ramp that was built to allow wheelchair access to a FEMA trailer. While the photographs seem at times didactic or merely associative, they ultimately provide a necessary context for the exhibition’s acute overall message. The furniture objects themselves are rendered dysfunctional, as they are missing an element crucial to their functionality. This decision instantly turns the discussion to their form and significance for they are no longer just a chair or table, but rather an artistic gesture that enables analysis and reflection. In an adjacent room, Cape constructed a new incarnation of his Prospect 1 Biennial project London Avenue (2008). This sculpture incorporates the Utility Furniture designs into an 8 x 13 ft wall stud—a proportion common to many of the homes damaged by Katrina. With this work, he thus draws a direct connection between England’s Blitz and New Orleans’ Katrina, suggesting a possible solution, as well as a subtle critique.
In juxtaposing these historical representations of governmental intervention with contemporary expressions of abandon and need, Cape turns a mirror unto American society. With poverty on the rise and increasing natural calamities, many individuals have been forced to reconfigure their standard of living. One therefore may wonder if indeed the concepts of social idealism should, and will, make a modern-day resurgence.
Images: Trailer with ramp (2006), 2009; Sideboard Model 1c, Liberty, New York, 2009; London Avenue, 2008. Courtesy Murray Guy, New York.