Emoh / Home: Loren Naji at Grand Rapids ArtPrize
“I’m going to have to borrow gas money to get home,” Loren Naji’s wry laughter echoed (just a little) through the tiny rafters of his spherical, handbuilt micro-home. Only a few hours earlier the Cleveland artist and a growing cadre of fans were still hoping that “Emoh,” as it is called, an oddly charming, eight-foot wide essay on hope and homelessness, would win a major cash prize at the 2016 Grand Rapids annual ArtPrize competition. In a preliminary round of voting, Naji had been picked as one of 20 finalists from a field of more than 1400 entries, shown around the Michigan city at 170 different venues.
Founded in 2009, Artprize is beginning to look like the MacArthur “genius grant” of pop art, or maybe the people’s Turner Prize. Naji would have walked away from the month-long arts show/festival/competition with an astounding $200K. ArtPrize actually awards two pots of gold in this amount: one to a popular choice voted through the organization’s website, plus a second jury pick (with New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz among the panelists this year).
Winning would have made a great rags-to-riches story, but in this case losing was a good story too. Naji was taking the news in stride when I spoke to him, shortly after the announcement. All that money would have been exciting, not to mention useful, to himself and others. Part of his plan, reported in preceding weeks by newspapers and TV News channels far and wide, was to donate a substantial part of the winnings to organizations providing support for the homeless in the Detroit area. But as it was, he’d made his art, and made his point, too, on a pretty grand scale.
Installation/sculpture has rarely looked more relevant to issues of daily life than the chunky Emoh did, parked on an urban sidewalk not far from Grand Rapid’s Contemporary Art Museum, and close to several of the 26 actual homeless shelters dotted around the city.
At the height of the buzz in the days leading up to the ArtPrize vote, a Google search for “Loren Naji, Emoh” produced a flood-like list of articles and podcasts, emanating from news agencies national and local. Coverage in Cleveland publications like CAN Journal and Scene were only the beginning. There were mentions of Emoh and Loren in papers from Newark and Wilmington, Pittsburg, Chillicothe, Jackson, Coshocton, Iowa City, Des Moines, even Seattle. In an era when print media is notably struggling, the list of more than fifty publications made a reassuringly robust display. And there were the other mediums. A reporter from USA Today’s website dropped by for a quickie interview early on during his three week sojourn in front of Kilwin’s Chocolates and Ice Cream (Loren’s sponsor for the event – all artists admitted to ArtPrize have a sponsor), and Naji soon became used to curious crowds, not to mention the steady stream of cameramen and reporters, microphones in hand, giving updates on Emoh on local news stations.
“I’ve been getting up at 6am or so; the crowds start around 8am. Then it goes all day, until 10 or 11 pm, Naji said. “I’m exhausted.”
I’d managed to reach Loren at 10:30pm, about a week after he arrived in Michigan. His stated intention was to live inside his ball of broken wood for three weeks (though he got out often during the day). He was approaching the halfway mark, and I wasn’t surprised he was getting tired.
“Most of the people who come by to talk are interested in the idea behind the project. But then there was this guy who broke a piece off, to show me that it had lead paint on it! No kidding! I said, Give it back, this is my art!”
The paint is an important part of the story Naji re-tells with his recycled materials. “Emoh” is of course “Home” backwards, and that semantic reverse motion has a couple of implications. Loren explains that the name comments on the backwardness of public policy in respect to homelessness. It highlights the backwards, upside down, inside out state of affairs evident in America’s cities, where homelessness and huge swathes of abandoned urban and inner-ring suburban houses are often strikingly juxtaposed. The painful irony of the situation is hard to miss. Naji collected colorful pieces of molding, furniture, siding and other woodwork from recently demolished houses in Ohio and Michigan, fitting them as siding/roofing, between the barrel-like staves that form the exoskeleton of his sphere.
Naji happens to not only be Emoh Man (at 5’7” Loren is just small enough to fit comfortably in the ball’s interior; he grew his hair and beard long and a bit untamed, “to look like a little man who lived in a weird little house”), but has had a long career as an artist, and noted Cleveland gallerist. A couple of decades ago he was also a retailer of exotic objects, obtained during travels to places like Borneo. Before that he spent time at the Art Students League in New York drawing and painting the figure, and earned a degree in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art. It’s no surprise to hear him cite Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn as major influences. The look and aesthetic feel of Emoh are nothing if not “painterly,” and on some level Naji does consider the sphere to be a “painting.” It’s outer shell is a quilt-like network of weathered, washed out, experiential textures and colors – shards of houses painted blue and gray, yellow and white, which once asserted prosperity and happiness under the changeable Midwestern sky. They speak now (at least to a painter’s eye) of the deep grain of life – splintered beauties that catch in the skin. At some point he added six square and round, pint-size portholes here and there, and a hatch, and inside placed a comfortable mattress, big enough to sleep soundly on. Bungee cords supported shelves for books; finally, Naji hung curtains on the “windows,” finishing up with a “Home Sweet Home” placard.
“One night, after I started fitting the panels on the frame of this sphere, I realized I had to live in it — then it would be meaningful.” Naji has made spheres before, including a similarly large layered plywood piece titled “They Have Landed,” which he clambered into for a photo-op a couple of years ago, when it was installed adjacent to the Rapid Transit stop near the West Side Market. There may be something extra-terrestrial about Emoh, too. At least it resembles a funky Sputnik. But then again, as a semi-functional living space it’s more like a tent or a yurt or a caravan, or a portable cave. More personal than abstract, it communicates with non-artists, too, invites them to knock on its door.
Among those who knocked during Naji’s improvised residency was Jesica Vail, Program Manager for the Grand Rapids Area Coalition to End Homelessness. His acquaintance with Vail lead to other contacts in the world of Grand Rapids homelessness. Things began to get a little more real. On the night of September 20, Naji ended up dining and sleeping over at one of the city’s Mel Trotter Ministries shelters. There he talked with Trotter communications director Abbey Sladick and was asked to say a few words about Emoh from the podium in the shelter’s chapel. A lively discussion ensued, and presently MLive.com reporter Cory Morse joined the group, bunking next to Naji and following events through breakfast the next morning.
Emoh may not be the solution to America’s homeless problem, and it’s unlikely to revolutionize the already over-revolutionized art world. Yet it was absolutely one of the most popular works included in this year’s Artprize. The big winners – some finely carved wooden sculptures of injured helper dogs, and a crisp performance/installation work depicting a make-believe (but all too real) bureaucracy, handing out questionnaires to establish who was, and was not, socially, medically, politically, sexually acceptable – were fine, though thematically no more remarkable than Naji’s piece. But it could be said that Emoh is far less self-conscious than those pieces, and in its way more sincere, with its unmistakable, rough and unraveling beauty. Emoh is something like the raft in Huckleberry Finn, or like any treehouse, or houseboat, or RV. And it reminds me of Jules Verne, of travels to the bottom of the sea and the center of the earth, to the moon and Mars. Maybe fantasies that are precursors to greater ideas of freedom, wish-fulfilling reveries about adventure and self-sufficiency, nourish the kindly hopes of a truly new world. New worlds need to have doubts about their own gravitas.
I asked him how he was going to get Emoh back to his Ohio City studio. He planned to load it back into the same trailer he used to get it there, hiring heavy equipment operators to lift the 1,000 pound object into the vehicle. Loren is good at working things out as he goes. Back in Cleveland now, he’s improvising a future for the sculpture. He hopes to take it on a tour, visiting art venues in Toronto, New York, maybe Chicago and Pittsburgh. Ultimately he wants to find a home for it in a public place—but none of that is certain yet. No matter. So far he’s improvised everything else about Emoh, which was originally inspired by a dream he had one night, about a little man who lived in a ball. Some dreams continue from night to night – unfolding like serial dramas or sitcoms. This one hasn’t been cancelled yet.