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Nadim Sabella's exhibit looks at the sad magic of decaying homes

| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012

Houses in decay are a common sight in Western Pennsylvania, but in the San Francisco Bay area, where artist and photographer Nadim Sabella lives, a house let to go to waste is a rare occurrence.

"I always wondered why anyone would ever abandon their home," Sabella says on a recent visit to Pittsburgh for the opening of his solo show "Little Disasters" at Box Heart Gallery in Bloomfield. "In San Francisco, real estate is so valued that nobody would ever let their homes go to waste like you find in other communities."

So, when Sabella went on a class photography expedition, while a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, to the Four Corners desert region of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah in 2004, he was surprised to find many abandoned homes surrounding smaller towns. So much so, that he started taking pictures of it all, especially from the inside.

"To me there were a lot of beautiful, magical things happening in the rooms," he says. "The beauty of the decay and the transformation from a home to an abandoned place that was taking on a life of its own was really intriguing."

A year later, when Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands from their homes, Sabella turned again to the notion of decay. First, he and two other artists, Anne Yalon and Robert Santee, created the large-scale installation, "A Room Displaced" -- a shipping crate that housed the interior of an abandoned bedroom complete with exposed lathe and peeling wallpaper. Then, he moved on to a miniature house, titled "Miniature I," in which each tiny room of the dollhouse-sized model is decayed.

The miniature house is on display in the Box Heart exhibit, and as visitors will see, it's every bit as texture-covered and dust-laden as earlier photographs on display depict. Photographs like "Staircase, Cedervale, NM" and "Ivy Room, Pescadero, CA" each, in their own way, have poetry in the peeling paint and exposed, rotting wood detailed.

Sabella was so taken by the interior he photographed for "Ivy Room" that he re-created the room recently in miniature and made a stop-motion film of it that makes the room appear as if it is decaying right before your eyes. Having the same title, it's on display in the gallery's window, and it's worth stopping by the gallery, even if it isn't open, to catch a glimpse of the mouse that Sabella animated moving through the space -- a touch of humor in an otherwise-sad state of affairs.

"It's 1,500 stills that make up this 1 minute and 50 second film," Sabella says. The piece took months to create. "There's a constant transformation of space, where the paint starts to chip, the wallpaper starts to peel."

As for the influence of Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent images of flooded homes that surfaced through the media, Sabella says that left such a lasting impression that it led to the creation his most recent series of photographs titled "In a Fog."

For it, he constructed miniature models of iconic San Francisco buildings and submerged them in water. For example, in "In a Fog III" Sabella depicts the Hilton Hotel on Kearny Street, which houses the Chinese Cultural Center, submerged up to the third floor in water. Furthermore, it appears to be surrounded by fog. "For the fog I just used dry ice," Sabella says.

Sabella says that the title "In a Fog" is a play on words. While, as an idiom, it refers to confusion and unawareness, it also serves as a direct reference to the infamous San Francisco fog that is present in every photograph. "In a Fog IV" depicts the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art surrounded by fog and submerged in water as well.

For those who are familiar with San Francisco, these two works in particular will be familiar. But so, too, will two smaller works that Sabella created. "Tommy's Joynt" depicts the original hof-brau which has been at the corner of Van Ness and Geary Boulevard since 1947. "One Tree" shows a public art installation by Rigo 23 that juxtaposes a mock freeway sign that says "One Tree" with a single live tree.

Technically not part of the Fog Series, in each, water is flooding the street. "They are about global warming, climate change and ocean levels rising," Sabella says, "which is a real threat to the Bay area."

Additional Information:

'Nadim Sabella: Little Disasters'

When: Through March 3. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays

Admission: Free

Where: Box Heart Gallery, 4523 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield

Details: 412-687-8858 or www.boxheart.org

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