Up until a few months ago, the house on the corner of Park and Swissvale avenues in Wilkinsburg looked like any other in the neighborhood. That is, until local sculptor Dee Briggs painted it gold.
Now the house, some of its contents and Briggs’ work as a sculptor are the subject of the solo exhibit “The Perception of Value,” on display at The Mine Factory.
Briggs went decidedly overboard on the house, painting it metallic gold from the top of the roof all the way down to its foundation. “It’s all about perception of value,” says Briggs, 47, who lives and works on the same block in a 10,000-square-foot converted firehouse.
She acquired the house within the past year through the city of Pittsburgh real-estate division with the intention of demolishing it. Before doing so, she had the idea to turn it into a unusual art project based on value.
“Because I had this idea of value bouncing around my head, I thought that painting it gold would be a way to say that this thing that everyone has seen as trash for the past 10 years is valuable,” she says. “Overnight, it went from being filthy and rundown to being ‘The House of Gold.’ ”
Briggs says, in a neighborhood where vacant houses are seemingly razed “overnight” to make way for new development, her project isn’t much different, although decidedly unique.
Born in Burgettstown and raised in Wellsburg, W.Va., outside of Weirton, Briggs studied architecture at the City College of New York, earning her master’s degree at Yale University in 2002. She moved to Pittsburgh in 2003 to teach in the architecture department at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2009, Briggs purchased the firehouse that is now her home and studio.
With the ambitious intent of taking over the entire block in which her studio sits, she raised $27,000 through Kickstarter to acquire the house and an adjacent piece of property. To date, she also has put $15,000 of her money into the project.
Briggs says the initial plan was to raze the property in the traditional way, by demolition. But upon discovering the history of the house and the families that had lived there since it was built in 1875, she couldn’t bare the thought of seeing it “smashed into the ground.”
So, since Oct. 20, she and seven area residents she hired have been demolishing the house floor by floor and piece by piece, by hand, with the help of a professional demolition contractor based in Homewood.
Briggs and her assistants have been removing nails and salvaging pieces of the house for reuse, some of which are on display in the gallery as art objects, such as a window-sash weight elegantly framed as a ready-made sculpture, and a door frame from the living room, which is stuck on the wall using the nails that held it in place in the house.
Surprisingly, the door frame is trimmed in gold, which was original to the house.
“We had painted the outside of the house gold without doing much to the interior,” Briggs says. “And then it was time to start cleaning out the interior. I had a couple of guys helping me, and when they unscrewed the doors which had been boarded up by the previous owner, and we took the plywood off of the windows, we were standing in the living room with light flooding in, and no one could believe that all the trim had been painted gold like this. I had no idea.”
A tiny sculpture — a 1⁄16-scale replica of the house, made of a stainless-steel bronze composite and plated in 24K gold — clues visitors in to what the exterior of the house looks like.
The exhibit includes several photographs of the interior and exterior of the house prior to demolition.
The images are especially intriguing, featuring some of the architectural details as well as the condition of the interior when Briggs first entered the house.
“The house was just full of scenes of this nature,” Briggs says pointing to a photograph filled with children’s clothing and toys. “There was just garbage and junk, food containers and kids’ clothes all throughout the house.”
After purchasing the property, Briggs asked friend and colleague Charles Rosenblum, an architectural historian, to assist her on finding out the history of the house. From there, they built a website dedicated to the history of the house (house-of-gold.com).
“We were able to find the deeds, the names of people that lived there, what they did for a living, their kids names, etc.,” Briggs says.
Half a dozen of Briggs’ sculptures sit on the exhibit floor, hang from the ceiling and are placed on pedestals throughout the exhibit space, each requiring the observer to engage with deceptively simple formal manipulations in carbon and CorTen steel.
Primarily made up of rings and curved planes with twists and turns that mimic each other, Briggs’ sculptures have been described as “explorations in chirality or handedness, the notion that two objects mirrored are not identical.”
By showing her work alongside items that were made about a hundred years ago, Briggs says, “I’m really trying to get people to ask how we perceive value, how we assign value to things in both directions. How does something lose value? How does something gain value? It’s about trying to get people to ask those questions, think about those things in a different way.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.