Last week, Hurricane Matthew obliterated Haitian communities; hundreds were killed. Katha Seidman and Laurie Kaplowitz focus an ancient lens on the after-effects of sudden disaster in their installation “Once There Was a House . . . Echoes From the Villa of the Mysteries,” at the South Shore Art Center. Their catastrophe: the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius and destruction of Pompeii.
Modeled on Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries, a popular tourist destination excavated more than a century ago, “Once There Was a House” takes us into a home stopped in time, yet still alive with spirits. The artists use ancient Roman beliefs to explore what echoes of the lost might fill the empty place left behind.
Kaplowitz’s warm-yet-chilling brick-red mural along one side of the gallery shows people putting on jewelry or lounging beside the dog, yet their faces are white, as if covered and frozen by ash, and their eyes hollow.
Ancient Romans believed that domestic spirits resided alongside the living, mediating with the gods on their behalf. Seidman’s striking 9-foot sculptures of six spirits stand in the center of the gallery. These commanding, elegantly garbed scarecrows have heads and limbs made of twigs, rope, and reeds, and belts made of hardware-store copper and acrylic tubing. Their heads look blown straight off their shoulders, twigs or reeds splaying as if their hair is afire, perhaps in shock. Bigger and more daunting than humans yet very like us, they stand vigil after their charges have been embalmed in ash.
“Once There Was a House” poignantly embodies grief — the shock of loss, and the lingering sense that the dead have never left. But there’s more to it than that. It depicts a home, indeed a community, taken without warning, and with it the relationships, the dreams, and the quotidian plans for the future, in one instant fossilized and never to be realized.
At South Shore Art Center, 119 Ripley Road, Cohasset, through Nov. 6. 781-383-2787, www.ssac.org