Anyone who’s been to New England would recognize a widow’s walk even if they weren’t familiar with the term. The historic architectural element is integral to the vernacular of the small towns that dot the wild Atlantic coast. When crowning older homes whose shutters are weathered by decades of winter winds, a widow’s walk is often functional: They are essentially viewing platforms atop a roof lined by a white picket fence.
As legend goes, mourning sailor’s wives could ascend these platforms and look out over the sea, praying for their husband’s safe return. In reality, they served a practical purpose: People could ascend and pour sand down adjacent chimneys in case of a fire. While many newer homes in the region still implement these fences as crowning features, they are often just for decoration. “The widow’s walk meant both hope and despair, life, and death in the same element,” wrote architect John Hejduk in his seminal book, Mask of Medusa. This same architectural element is both the title of and inspiration for a new exhibition on Martha’s Vineyard curated by architecture and design studio Charlap Hyman & Herrero (CH&H).
A Hejduk quote, sourced from his seminal work Mask of Medusa and included in the show’s announcement, aligns with the show’s overarching themes:
“For me the question is, how do you get the rich ambiguities present in the architecture produced within the European condition into an architecture of separation and isolation? What fascinates me in American architecture, especially in the architecture of New England houses, is the way they are stock and they are elemental but they are also mysterious… it’s an austerity which is inexplicable.”
The studio recently put up an exhibition similarly inspired by the work of Hejduk, so it comes as no surprise that his words continue to guide the office’s curatorial work.
An inexplicable, even irrational, feeling of haunting and memory pervade the show’s setting. CH&H has altered the walls and ceilings of Winter Street Gallery to appear as if they were marred by smoke. The impressions and marks left by “ghost” objects dirty the surfaces behind the works on view, giving a sense of memory. (The unfolded interior elevation of this act also served as a striking promotional mailer for the show.) Within this curated setting, each object on display becomes a vessel in which viewers can pour their own feelings of longing.
The artworks on display vary from painterly work evocative of faraway centuries like Leonor Finis’s gilded Portrait of Dachoo Dinshaw, Countess Woronzow from 1946, and even some from those centuries themselves, like Pieter de Grebber’s Mary Magdalene, completed in 1650. But these varnished canvases serve as somewhat surreal backdrops to hyper-contemporary works like Eli Ping’s minimalist sculpture, Mote, completed just this year, and others that aptly straddle the art historical canon with timeless forms in appropriately soft and subtle expressions, whether from 21st or 17th century. One that weaves through time in this similarly haunting way, evoking the words of Hejduk and the history of the widow’s walk itself, is Man From the Internet 71 by Andra Ursuta. This small work on paper is a golden inked form that appears to be in the process of fragmenting, But what at first glance may be gold gilding scraps reveals itself to be treated with such modern materials like framing made from hand-cast polyurethane; yet, in a final stroke of juxtaposition, the artist chooses to hang the work in a frame made from dirt.
In an era of easily Instagrammable showcases and fleeting attention spans, the gravitas that CH&H instill within the Winter Street Gallery is a welcome change of pace. CH&H has written that the studio seeks to “create spaces that become worlds unto themselves,” and this veiled gallery conflating eras, geography, and time seems to be a fitting arena for this experiment in world-making.
Widow’s Walk is on view at Winter Street Gallery in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, through August 27.