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‘Playing House’ artwork explores home and family identity, and the ties that bind

SANTA FE, N.M. — A sofa is cut apart and reattached with duct tape. Plates are shattered and reconstructed into geometric patterns. Pieces of daily home life are torn apart and reworked into colorful mandalas.

Hillerbrand+Magsamen is all about the fractures and alignments that occur in daily family life, the relationships that morph and shift over time.

Not to mention all the “stuff” that a suburban American family can accumulate. Photographs show a boy in a tub overflowing with bright-colored toys, a girl in a hallway with stuffed animals heaped in her arms and a dog amid mounding slices of white bread.

The art that emerges from the Houston family of Stephan Hillerbrand and Mary Magsamen, daughter Maddie, 12, and son Emmett, 8, is on display through May 24 in the Muñoz Waxman Gallery at the Center for Contemporary Arts. “Playing House” includes photographs, video, and photographs printed on clothing and blankets and plates.

And don’t forget the GoPro home videos from the Roomba vacuum that will be sweeping the gallery floor.

All of it is set in the family home.

“We’re exploring home identity and family identity,” an exploration that has been ongoing with the pair since they started collaborating about 13 years ago, said Magsamen, who took some time to chat while overseeing final touches before last Friday’s exhibition opening.

“Their work really speaks to me,” said Erin Elder, CCA visual arts director. “It’s specific. It’s their family, their faces, their home, but it’s universal as well: the ties that bind.”

It’s also the first exhibit stemming from a collaboration with the Santa Fe Art Institute, in which artists who serve residencies there will return with their completed work (and more) in exhibitions at CCA, she said.

Magsamen said her family was at SFAI last July for a one-month family residency, using the time to work together on a video, filmed at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. “We’re members of a band who are coming together to play,” she said of the video, which is part of the CCA exhibition. “We all have parts, but don’t ever make music together.”

In reality, Maddie is the only family member who can play an instrument (guitar), she added.

Another video shows Magsamen cutting a couch into smaller pieces in an attempt to bring her and her husband closer together. But he, in turn, duct tapes the pieces back together – “because duct tape fixes everything.”

“House/hold: Cerberus,” 2012, is an archival pigment print by Hillerbrand+Magsamen. (Courtesy of Hillerbrand+Magsamen)

“House/hold: Cerberus,” 2012, is an archival pigment print by Hillerbrand+Magsamen. (Courtesy of Hillerbrand+Magsamen)

And, yes, it was their actual couch that she took a power saw to.

Just as it was their actual home in which they cut holes into doors for the family to crawl through in the video “Whole.”

“It’s a futile process of going nowhere,” she said, adding that futility is a theme that often recurs in their work.

The video “Whether” uses a fog machine to puff obliterating smoke around family members, often seen just by the backs of their heads or in quiet gatherings around the family table.

“We were working with the idea of how emotions in a family can change dynamics in a family,” Magsamen said. “Depression can create a literal fog inside a house. You can’t see things the way they should be seen.”

A more playful video was created under commission from Houston’s airport, a version of which will be displayed in Terminal A, she said. “Higher Ground” includes elaborate costumes and a backyard spaceship that the family enters and blasts off to the moon, then returns to its warmly lit home.

So far, the kids have been willing collaborators in their art projects, Magsamen said. As a matter of fact, their daughter says she wants to be an artist and often offers suggestions about the pieces they work on.

While some might feel funny about having themselves on display to the general public, she said the children don’t seem to think twice about it. “It’s how they’ve grown up,” she said.

And, while she and her husband might have disagreements about their art – “Collaboration is not easy” – working on the projects ultimately “brings us together,” she said.

At the CCA exhibition, a separate room in the gallery holds the installation “Four-Plate Setting,” in which a video projection onto the table shows the plates being hammered into pieces, then hands from all four sides rearrange the pieces into a circular pattern like a jigsaw puzzle. Viewers can sit around the table and feel the blows of the hammers shaking their seats.

This is an image from “Whole,” a high-definition video created in 2012 by Hillerbrand+Magsamen. (Courtesy of Hillerbrand+Magsamen)

This is an image from “Whole,” a high-definition video created in 2012 by Hillerbrand+Magsamen. (Courtesy of Hillerbrand+Magsamen)

Breaking plates isn’t new to their work. Neither is having it shown in Santa Fe. At last summer’s Currents new media festival in the Railyard, Hillerbrand+Magsamen had a video projection showing their son smashing a stack of plates one by one.

They also had an online video shown through SITE Santa Fe a few years ago, as well as an exhibit of their mandalas in Albuquerque in November.

“We’re slowly infiltrating New Mexico,” quipped Magsamen, who added that the pair have shown in many places both nationally and internationally over the past couple of decades. They both have day jobs, Magsamen as a curator at a media arts center and Hillerbrand as an associate professor at the University of Houston.