I met Rodger Lovell at the Golden Nugget Flea Market in Lambertville, NJ. He was haggling over the price of an old barn painting. He caught my attention when he argued with the seller, saying that the painting was too ugly for the price he was asking. This begged the question as to why Rodger would even want to buy a painting he found ugly, which the seller asked. Rodger responded by describing his collection of broken down and abandoned house paintings.
Intrigued, I questioned him about this collection, which he was only too glad to discuss. Rodger is 63 years old and has lived in Bucks County all his life. He worked as a roofer for many years until he fell off a house and broke his hip. Now he builds furniture from his home. His collection began shortly after his childhood home was torn down. Rodger, who moved to Upper Black Eddy after getting married when he was 18, says he hardly paid any mind to the old house until it was raised. It was on a block where it wasn’t much different from those around it and as a child, he remembers wishing he lived elsewhere. After his parents passed on, Rodger’s brother handled the sale of the house. Once it was gone though, he started having vivid dreams about the old place. In 1994 he came upon a painting of a house at Brown’s Auction that reminded him of the homestead and so began his collection.
After sharing my interest on the subject, Rodger extended an invitation to see his curious collection. Apart from a few framed family photos, the walls of his rancher are nearly covered with the dilapidated house paintings. They made up a village on the walls, though each house was sequestered in solitude by the frame. Rodger says he doesn’t have that much disposable income with which to purchase high quality pieces of his favorite subject from galleries, but he doesn’t mind the amateur variety, of which his collection is mostly comprised. Each year he manages to acquire several new installments from flea markets, auctions and even student art shows.
Not all of Rodger’s paintings seemed to meet his criteria of being broken down or abandoned, though they all certainly felt that way. There is something so deliciously forlorn about the painted image of a house. My mind immediately calls up the images of Hopper and Wyeth’s more notable examples of house paintings. The buildings they immortalized seem spied upon and eerily intimate. It’s easy to personify a house, to imagine the expression of a face cast by eye-like windows, or door-like mouth. It is not a stretch from there to envision the house’s conscious relationship to its inhabitants. A painting of a house seems to release it from its service to the inhabitants and become an independent force. In a painting it has its own lifespan that exceeds that of its human charges— it appears like a ghost or drying bones, sad and mysterious.
Rodger and I talked for a while about why we are attracted to old things and guess at why these abandoned house paintings make such a compelling and repeated subject for paintings. As someone who has also painted my fair share of vacant houses, I offered some practical notions for selecting them as a subject. The power of ownership is a hard force to work around— the painter can feel intrusive painting a house in which someone is living, like staring at the inhabitants themselves without permission. Or the painter can feel responsible somehow for depicting the owner’s idea of their house rather than his or her own impression of the structure. In this way an abandoned house becomes inviting to observe with more intimacy, as it loses ownership and unites with the landscape around it. Obviously, it is more than a lack of ownership that makes abandoned houses attractive.
Like a painting, an abandoned house seems somehow timeless. Even as the weeds grow up around it and it becomes derelict, it seems to have ducked out of the flow of societal time. It is no longer a functional structure and so becomes something like a sculpture, reflecting on the idea of living spaces. If home is the idea of a living space and a house is a place built for that idea to occur, then these relics are houses without being homes. They are lifeless bodies, like mannequins— uncanny things to which we really don’t know how to relate.
The look of antiquity gives us a moment of pause to consider our place in time. We think about what came before us and what will come after in the presence of that look of age. In an abandoned house, that antiquity is even more potent for pondering our existence. We might look on them and imagine who lived there or why they might have left and in so doing, reflect on what our own legacy has been. In Bucks County, where the sense of place is so varied and where new and old houses reside together, an abandoned house feels like a pretty good way to get perspective on our legacy in the landscape.
Rodger Lovell says with a grin that he is giving the houses in his paintings a home. I like this idea and suspect I will be doing my own part, giving abandoned houses homes in paint.
*The character of Roger Lovell and his collection of abandoned house paintings do not exist. They were invented by the author for the purpose of discussing the associated topics in art.