Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Living in a haunted house

Painted jet black and decorated in a campy gothic horror-style,
"Surreal Estate" is an installation by artists Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz.

(The following article, originally published in Budget Living Magazine, was written by Laura J. Vogel. Click here for additional photos from this display.)

Picture yourself on a dark night ambling along an empty road in Fleischmanns, New York, a town haunted by the ghosts of bygone Borscht Belt glory. As you pass Peacock Hill -- a strikingly ghoulish three-story black Gothic mansion -- shrieks of terror ring out. Once your heart starts beating again, you run to the victim's aid. Rushing past the funereal peacocks that stand guard on the sloping lawn, you throw open the front door in alarm to find the owners lying in a pool of red -- is it blood? or carpet? -- when you hear more cries.

"Good God," a voice in the living room calls out, "now that's scary!" And there the real horror is unspooling:

A hapless houseguest watches the TV as a video spews images of the sprawling 1895 Victorian before it fell under the delightfully dark spell of New York artists Rob Pruitt and Jonathan Horowitz. The exterior was clad in rust-stained, peach-colored asbestos siding. Polyester sheers covered the windows. Awful wall-to-wall carpeted the floors. A porch sign bore the sickly sweet name rosebud cottage. The rooms were so cluttered with mismatched bric-a-brac that mustiness seems to seep out from the screen. Luckily, both Pruitt and Horowitz delight in fright, so they love the pre-renovation video: What better way to show the scope of their macabre makeover?

The couple wanted a house that would stop people dead. If the graveyard behind the house -- with nine cheeky plywood headstones and counting -- is any indication, Peacock Hill, a riff on Martha Stewart's Turkey Hill estate, is some success. Out of dark humor and daring decorating choices, the artists forged a living, live-in piece of art. Or rather, as Pruitt puts it, "a melding of art and home design." Truth is, neither of them goes in for interior decorating per se. "We're much more excited by facade, theater set, and cinematic skin-deep fakery rather than typically tasteful decor," Pruitt adds.

In Peacock Hill, they've made a set worthy of a Vincent Price movie, and they've done it for a relative pittance -- restoring and remaking the entire eight-gabled mansion (which cost a modest $143,000) and furnishing its 20 rooms all for less than $30,000. But a funny thing happened on the way to the haunted house. Brimming with visual jokes and affordable artistic tricks and treats, the couple's little shop of horrors became a home so surprisingly habitable, so chock-full of doable decorating ideas, it's frightening.

You wouldn't know it from looking at the ramshackle property on the video, but Pruitt and Horowitz were picky house hunters, checking out more than 100 homes before settling on their diamond in the rough. They bought it "not just because we're cheapskates," Pruitt says. "We both have a real affection for things that are broken. You develop an almost human relationship to a thing when you nurse it back to health." Luckily, under the vile veneer was architecture with terrific bones -- a beautiful hardwood staircase that had never been painted, a roof in great shape -- which allowed the couple to eschew structural alterations and do the work themselves.

Their first task was ripping up carpet and carting away the chintz. Then, rather than adding costly ornamental detailing, they used paint to create mock moldings and trompe l'oeil floors. It took them more than a year, but Pruitt and Horowitz finally produced a home that highlighted their respective talents -- paint and conceptual art. In May they unveiled it in a show titled Surreal Estate at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, a Manhattan gallery, which sent busloads of arty downtown types upstate to see the house.

Every visitor is immediately struck by Peacock Hill's exquisite noir exterior. The structure's classic Gothic lines and its owners' desire to treat it as a piece of art -- sculptor Louise Bourgeois was a particular influence -- inspired the all-black paint job, which in turn gave rise to the whole bewitching concept. "Once we established our pop interpretation of Gothic, it was really easy to furnish it," Horowitz says. "It's a good idea to pick a style that's not in vogue. We chose Victorian as our main theme: Nobody wants that stuff now."

Of course, Victoriana is no one style, and that suits the pair just fine. "We wanted the house to have a period feel but didn't want something frozen in time," Pruitt says. "We took pieces from each era, from when the house was built to today…1800s to Ikea." Interspersed throughout the house are Victorian prints, 1930s crystal chandeliers, '60s stained-glass ice-cream-parlor lamps, and contemporary art by painter friends like Elizabeth Peyton.

More than anything, though, the home reflects "the Victorian notion of the world traveler, the amateur scientist-collector who had a cabinet of wonder," Pruitt adds. "Every time we travel, even to North Dakota, we bring things back. This house really has the narrative of our lives." If so, it's a low-budget story. They combed Roberts', a dirt-cheap local auction house; they bartered (swapping a modern sofa for the pleather numbers in the living room) and bid like demons on eBay (landing the bold deck furniture fabric and a load of Charles Addams books and plates, among other steals). "We didn't have a lot of money at our disposal," Horowitz notes. "We had a rule not to spend more than $500 on any piece of furniture, and we really didn't come close to that."

They say the devil is in the details, which explains why every corner of Peacock Hill holds another witty touch of evil. The pool of "blood" spilling off the stairs? It's a 100-foot-long runner linking each hallway and staircase from the attic on down -- even getting it custom-cut and edged on-site, it cost $1,400. Referencing Victorian portrait galleries, Pruitt and Horowitz transformed the butler's pantry into a DJ nook adorned with album covers framed within stick-on borders. The covers slide in and out of 25-cent mirror clips "so you can be a visual as well as an audio DJ," Horowitz says. An array of '70s perfume "gun" decanters ($5 to $10 at tag sales) is fanned out atop a red Chinese table, and plastic cleavers from a post-Halloween sale at Wal-Mart hang in the kitchen.

Looming over the entry hall is a rhinoceros head. Do our artists hunt? Yeah, at flea markets, like the one in Brimfield, Massachusetts, where they found the fiberglass rhino. In fact, the ardent vegetarians continued the faux taxidermy throughout the house with trippy animal rugs, plastic mice ($2.50 for three), a polar bear head planter, and plaster owls and other birds of prey. Then, of course, there's the owners own work. Pruitt's acclaimed panda paintings adorn the entry hall and accent the animal rights theme, while every bedroom has Horowitz's pillowcases, silk-screened with the names of historically horrific pairings, like jekyll and hyde, morticia and gomez.

As creepy and kooky as it is -- the taxidermy, the blood, the weapons, the death -- it's all purely ironic. You couldn't ask for more gentle and easygoing neighbors than Pruitt and Horowitz. Almost daily, they welcome some curious soul who knocks and sheepishly asks to look around. In costume or not, each visitor comes away with plenty of eye candy at Peacock Hill. What else would you expect at a house where every day is Halloween?

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