A House Divided: Skylar Fein’s “The Lincoln Bedroom”

Installation view of Skylar Fein's "The Lincoln Bedroom" at C24 Gallery in New York.

Editor's Note

Writer Corinna Kirsch checks in from New York with a look at New Orleans-based Skylar Fein's latest at C24 Gallery.

Prior to the Civil War, people used to say, “the United States are”—plural. With unification, the nation came together as a single entity, at least through a turn of phrase. Yet, as a country, we remain of many minds, especially when it comes to thinking about our messy history. Skylar Fein tackles a bit of that mess in “The Lincoln Bedroom.”

The titular bedroom is a life-size, walk-in diorama—a wooden, one-room shack plopped down in the gallery like Dorothy’s home in The Wizard of Oz. Far from the White House’s refined Victorian-era Lincoln Bedroom, the raw room is drawn from Lincoln’s pre-presidential life. From what we’re told in the exhibition narrative, pasted in vinyl on the gallery walls, the shack is a recreation of the living quarters Abraham Lincoln once shared with Joshua Speed, a wealthy, pro-slavery friend who owned a general store, in Springfield, Illinois. The room’s based on real documents, but it’s just as much fiction.

That’s fair given how little we actually know about Lincoln’s personal life. Though his sexuality is a recurring topic of speculation, nobody quite knows what to do with the clues. To Fein, it doesn’t seem to matter much whether Lincoln was gay or not, and the exhibition would be worse off if it tried to make any grand claims about excavating historical truth. The job of art isn’t to make tidy a world that we know is jumbled together.

But what art does let us do is wander through that jumble, as we try to figure out for ourselves if any of it makes sense. Standing in Fein’s sparse, low-ceilinged room, there isn’t much to look at except for clothes and newspapers scattered about, along with a handful of household objects like a lamp. In contrast to most large-scale installations, there is no shock, no spectacle—just dry observation.

The one bed, the most conspicuous object in the room, seems to turn any admission of love between Lincoln and Speed into an impossibility, at least practically speaking. I doubt our tallest president would have fit into such a small bed, or short room for that matter. Of course, that’s just me eyeballing it and plenty of truths out there can’t be proven by sight alone.

The other option—one that Fein suggests through his exhibition narrative—is that the truth is never definitive:

Am I arguing that Lincoln was homosexual? I’ll give the answer away right now: that question is probably unanswerable. In the end, Lincoln’s same-sex bed sharing may mean less than its proponents want, but more than its opponents allow.  The truth may lie somewhere in between, in a third category: messy.

Ah, messy. It’s a simple word to describe art, and although it’s just a starting point for headier discussions, at least it’s true.

Installation view of Skylar Fein's "The Lincoln Bedroom" at C24 Gallery in New York.

Editor's Note

“The Lincoln Bedroom” on view through December 21 at  C24 Gallery (514 West 24th Street) in New York.