Can architecture transform lives? Can it transform us? These questions lay the foundation for Structure and Ornament, a solo exhibition of work by Seattle-based artist Leo Saul Berk, on view at Frye Art Museum. Presented in a meandering array of multimedia sculpture, site-specific installation, and video with sound, Berk’s ongoing series is a reflection on his childhood home in Aurora, Illinois—a site formative to his personal and artistic growth.
In the winter of 1980, seven-year-old Berk and his family moved into the Ford House, created by visionary midwestern architect Bruce Goff. Designed in 1947, the house is characterized by its massive central dome, flanked by two semicircular bedroom wings. Today, it stands as an unapologetic icon of midcentury modernist design influenced by organic architecture and neo-futurist promise. Steel Quonset ribs, painted a Golden Gate orange, conjoin a curved coal and glass wall to define the exterior of the home. Inside, Navy surplus ropes, herringbone wood inlay, and glass domes from World War II fighter jets come together in a resplendent array of material texture. Like many of his contemporaries, Goff’s architectural style celebrates the traditions of handcraft alongside the ideals of technology and industry. The Ford House is the product of its age—a tangible expression of imagination and architectural experiment. The structure ignited Berk throughout his childhood, and thirty-five years later, it continues to confound and inspire.
Like a beacon, the Ford House drew Berk home. In 2011, the artist returned to Aurora and was brought to tears when its current owner led him through the familiar sights and smells of the rooms he was once so intimately attached to. Drawing upon his personal memory as well as the architectural history of the house, Berk was led to develop a body of work that would become Structure and Ornament. A selection of sculptures in the exhibition are Berk’s realizations of decorative ambitions for the Ford that never came to be. Specular Reflections (2015), a set of large floating marbles in the museum’s reflecting pool, and Wind Jangle (2015), a suspended ornamental screen of aluminum chimes, are both site-specific installations that hearken to the embellishments of a midcentury corporate campus, rather than a domestic home (think of Eero Saarinen’s GM Tech Center with decorative metalwork by Harry Bertoia). Perfectly situated in the entrance of the Frye Art Museum, these works establish a distinctly retro spirit—the disintegration of past into present—that dissipates throughout the show.