LOS ANGELES — When artists Louise Bonnet and Adam Silverman pitched the idea last year of an exhibition of their work at the Hollyhock House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first LA commission, they didn’t get their hopes up. “We thought they would just say no, but we’d give it a shot,” Silverman said. The LA-based couple had been looking for a place to show their work — Bonnet is a painter and Silverman a ceramicist — outside of a traditional white cube. “We were interested in something domestic,” says Bonnet. “The only place we had ever seen our work together was in our house.” To their surprise, Hollyhock House’s curator Abbey Chamberlain Brach agreed, and last month, their two-person show Entanglements opened, the first such exhibition of contemporary art in the building since it became a house-museum a half century ago.
Completed in 1921, the Hollyhock House was commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, an experimental theater producer, committed feminist, and heiress to an oil fortune who envisioned it as part of a 36-acre arts complex perched on a hilltop on the border of East Hollywood and Los Feliz. Her relationship with Wright, the architect she hired for the job, was antagonistic and combative, and he was ultimately fired from the project, replaced by his assistant Rudolph Schindler, who would go on to become a seminal figure of Southern California Modernist architecture. Barnsdall only lived in the house for a brief period before donating it to the city in 1927.
“It was a contentious but productive relationship. She didn’t let herself get pushed around,” Bonnet says. “The fact that this house came out of it was interesting to us.”
“They were like a couple that gets married and divorced, over and over,” adds Silverman.
The pair made a conscious decision to work independently while they prepared for the show. “We both went into our studios and didn’t see what the other was making until the end,” says Bonnet.
Still, collaborative tensions crept into their daily lives. Being equally involved and invested in the show “got a little claustrophobic,” says Silverman of their evening de-briefs.
The resulting works respond to both the history and structure of the house while still seeming slightly at odds with the period setting, like a genial party guest you can’t quite place. Bonnet, who is known for her grotesque but seductive bodily imagery, has contributed two large paintings and one drawing on paper, each depicting bulbous hands with knobby interlaced fingers, their bumps and crevices resembling brains. Because the artists were forbidden from putting new nails in the walls, the works are placed in the exact spots where Barnsdall hung paintings from her extensive art collection, verified through archival photographs. In “Hollyhock Green” and “Hollyhock Gold” (both 2022), Bonnet references the distinctive color scheme of the walls.
With their rough exteriors, dents, and fissures, Silverman’s stoneware vessels display a similar aesthetic tension as Bonnet explores in her canvases. Several works feature two or more pots fused together, a physical embodiment of tumultuous interdependence. He also integrates the site, incorporating ash from nearby olive trees and seaweed from the Pacific Ocean into his glazes. The land that the house sits on was originally called Olive Hill, and Silverman notes that it was oriented so that the Pacific Ocean was visible. Then there is the simple material connection, as the Mayan Revival residence was built using clay blocks since concrete was too expensive. “It’s a big pot,” Silverman says of the building.
The artists had to engage not only with the stormy relationship of the building’s creators but also the peculiarities of the spaces. Ceiling heights vary from cramped to voluminous, some rooms are bathed in light while others are shaded. “In many ways it’s generous, and in many ways challenging,” Silverman says. “At a museum, they get rid of problematic features.”
These challenges add a degree of drama to the exhibition, framing it within dueling personalities, styles, and time periods.
“One thing that surprised us was how much the work was welcomed by the house. It absorbed it in a weird way. It could have clashed and fought,” Bonnet says. “It would have been interesting if it didn’t work.”