American Faux

Faux. Fake.  We seem to excel at that, even in the politics of the decorative. The point was driven home by a trip to Olana this week. Frederic Church’s mid-nineteenth century home overlooking the Hudson would be down right crass but for its somber palette inside and out. (Lugubrious may be more accurate.) Stenciled ornament substitutes for carving; cut paper (like katagami) is sandwiched between glass panes to look like wrought iron. Even the brass stair railing with its regular nodal rings hints at (industrialized) bamboo. The authenticity of the Churches’ acquisitions—Syrian armor, French (maybe Belgian?) tapestry, pre-Colombian fragments, and tarnished brass mosque lamps—looks suspicious in the company of so much ersatz.  Even the view of the Hudson (which now includes the very 20thcentury Rip Van Winkle Bridge) seems like a painting.  A fabrication in every sense of the word, Olana is simultaneously a love affair with and cannibalization of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese motifs—themselves distillations from an undifferentiated antiquity. Of course, that antiquity is not Greco-Roman, but the all-encompassing ‘Exotic.’ (Funny to think of making a pilgrimage of an hour’s plus drive to see an architectural souvenir of a world traveler.)

Curiosity about differences means we’re alert to realms outside our imagined perimeters. But trying to tame that difference—there’s a less salubrious word for that. In any case, it’s instructive to see Olana meticulously restored. It offers a subtly discomforting foil to the undiluted nature of Church’s landscape paintings—paintings that attempt to penetrate their subjects where the house glosses over them. It is a poor-man’s Alhambra as stylized as a tail-fin on a Cadillac. Yet, Olana never succumbs to parody. In the looseness of its borrowings, this decorated shed is a reminder of America’s affinities to the hybrid—which, on our good days, extends well beyond the politics of ornament.   

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