Leonard Wood was here. He lived a nice long life, and he was well loved, and he chased away grief and fear by building things that occupied his hands and kept his mind off his troubles. He was an unremarkable man, one about whom none of us would ever have heard at all, because Wood left behind no children who might remember him. His wife, Mary, preceded him in death. There is no one here to recall Leonard Wood, an eccentric yet unexceptional man who tried to keep his wife from dying in the oddest way.
But there is Brent Green. And, therefore, there is an impossibly large installation at the ASU Art Museum that is a monument to the life of Leonard Wood, a man whom Green, a Pennsylvania visual artist and filmmaker, never met. Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, Green's colossal new multi-media installation, re-creates the whacked-out house that Leonard Wood built for himself and his wife in Louisville, Kentucky. But Gravity is more than a bizarre tribute to an odd old man who built a funny house. It's a meditation on faith and mortality, and a gentle comedy about the tragic ways in which most of us, once we're gone, are simply forgotten.
Leonard Wood left behind a lot of strange stuff when he died — most notably the weirdly Lewis Carroll-esque house in which he'd lived. But the one thing that Brent Green prizes most isn't something he found in Wood's house, which he visited just before it was torn down by the man who bought the property a few years ago. Green most cherishes a letter that was found in Wood's safety deposit after he died, a letter addressed to Wood's deceased wife, in which he pleads with her to contact him from beyond the grave.
"It was the only thing in his safety deposit box," Green says during a break from installing his mammoth exhibit at ASU. "I kind of feel like he left the letter behind for someone like me to find. He recognized that his story could live on if it fell into the hands of a person who cared about it. And, I don't know. I guess caring about stories like Leonard's is my job."
It's also Green's passion. He's moved, he admits, by what he calls "the things that remain behind" — the stories and letters and detritus that we all leave when we die. "I'm personally obsessed with family history," he says. "All the things that are here after our lives end mean more to me than any kind of art."
And yet Green has created art from this post-partum detritus. What began as a set for his latest film about a man who tries to save his wife's life by building a strange little house, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then morphed into a full-scale installation built on the land behind Green's home in Pennsylvania. The centerpiece of that installation is Wood's house, a trippy, cartoon-esque structure in which floors begin three feet up the doorframes and the laundry room sports a 32-foot ceiling.
The house came to Green's attention through a friend familiar with the artist's interest in strange old buildings with stories behind them. The tale told about Wood's home is that he believed he could cure his wife's cancer by building a new (and oddly proportioned) house for them. Green doesn't buy it.
"I don't think he thought building this house would save his wife's life," Green says, "and I don't think he was crazy, either. Distraction is too nice a word for what Leonard was doing, but I think he was really trying to avoid her death and occupy his time by building something — in this case, a weird, mixed-up house."
Green has disassembled that house and brought it to ASU, where he has adapted it to fit in the museum gallery, which won't accommodate a laundry room with 32-foot ceilings. But Green's (and Wood's) many flourishes remain: a spaced-out upright piano; the bathroom built underneath the bedroom (so that the steam from the tub can heat the bedroom floor); the numbered staircase; the room whose floor starts halfway up the doorframe, so that one must hoist oneself up into the bedroom or duck down into the bathroom below.
The neighboring houses are there, too, although in a smaller scale; they all look alike, making Wood's home appear even more comic and otherworldly. That's as close to irony as Green comes with Gravity; his take on Wood's life is otherwise neither cynical nor satirical. There's real honor in this work, which celebrates the faith of an old man who hoped a house could heal his sick wife. Green isn't laughing at the old guy or his unusual architecture; he's revealing the ways in which we pin our hopes on faith, and the ways in which faith can fail us.
"I started out to make a movie about how you can run everything in your life down to zero to leave something wonderful behind," Green says about the Gravity film, scenes from which are part of the exhibit and can be heard throughout the house, because Green wants visitors to hear Wood's faith as they tour the mocked-up version of his nutty old home. Listen carefully, and you'll hear Green's own musings about the way that architecture is devolving. He's taken note, during the few weeks he's been here, of our local landscape.
"There are so many great architects living here," Green says, "and I think the sameness in Phoenix architecture must be like a hammer to their heads." Green, ever the polite Midwesterner, briefly worries that he might be offending someone. "I don't know," he quickly avers. "I'm not from suburbia."
Green worries, too, that his work will be misunderstood — every artist's lament. "A lot of people think I'm making a biography of Leonard Wood," he says. "I am not. I'm not a reporter. I think Leonard's story is amazing, and I'm using the framework of that story to make a larger point: that life should be about finding what's important to you, and working on it, no matter how many people think you're crazy."