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Beyond Appearances in Suburbia

Work that deconstructs the white picket fence image of pureness and order is gathered for a disorienting gallery exhibition in Manhattan.


NEW YORK — Suburbia, in its ideal form, is a place free from ambiguity. Neat, evenly spaced houses surrounded by kempt green lawns and tidy gardens have stood, in movies, on television and in the popular American consciousness, as symbols of normality and as concrete manifestations of the American Dream.

Recently, though, the suburbs have come in for a drubbing. Films such as "American Beauty" and the HBO series "The Sopranos" wallow in the undercurrents of dysfunction beneath the placid reverie. That dyspeptic, surreal and yet vaguely affectionate take on the suburbs is one that photographers, sculptors and painters have been spinning for decades, as a rather hallucinatory new show at the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in Manhattan intoxicatingly demonstrates.

The exhibition, "American Standard: (Para)Normality and Everyday Life," has been put together by New York City-based photographer Gregory Crewdson, whose own work imagines uncanny, sometimes sinister suburban rituals. (Twenty of his photos are on display in "Twilight," at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills.)

Like many young photographers today, Crewdson does not document events: He creates them according to his own specifications, using the cinematographer's tools. Crewdson supervises the construction of elaborate sets and directs his actors in their performance of rites he invents. His pictures, bulging with all the visual details he can pack into them, tell ambiguous tales of violence and alienation in meticulously ordered surroundings.

It's not surprising that, when acting as curator, Crewdson should turn to his own antecedents. Edward Hopper, Diane Arbus, Bill Owens, Cindy Sherman, Joel Sternfeld, Eric Fischl and the other artists he invokes all reveal the darkness lying beneath normality's sunny trappings. Beyond that, they are all masters of disorientation, using a range of carefully contrived formal devices--such as cinematic lighting, supersaturated color and vertiginous dislocations in scale--to skew the ordinary into something artificial and blatantly surreal.

In Fischl's "Best Western" (1983), a clean-cut blond boy in jeans and sneakers kneels by a large backyard pool in some warm suburb. It's nighttime, the sky lowers against the dark trees and the kid is practicing warfare with oranges. He gathers the pieces of fruit in his arms like a Caravaggio Bacchus, then bowls them at toy soldiers he has carefully positioned on the cement.

There's nothing inherently bizarre or disturbing in the scenario. We know that children of all ages routinely engage in aggressive play. But the way the boy's skeletal blond head glows against the black foliage, the smoky, lurid color of the sky and the abject solitude of the game together imbue the painting with an ominous drama.

In the same room, Crewdson has ingeniously juxtaposed John Currin's portrait of an adolescent "Mary O'Connel" (1989) with Keith Edmier's life-size "Jill Peters," a sculpture of a pale, fair-haired woman dressed in an ensemble of man-made fabrics, all the same pristine, virginal white. The two look like different versions of the same nymphet.

Currin paints her as she might appear in a high school yearbook picture, fair hair falling off her face in two perfectly feathered wings. But this girl is moodier than she should be. Her mouth is sullen, her skin anemic, her eyes hard.

In Edmier's vision of suburban girlhood, the blond hair is equally pale and soft. But instead of a sulk, Jill wears a smile as rigid as the vinyl she's molded out of. Everything about her looks manufactured, from the expression on her face to the white rayon and polyester clothes she wears. She's an ode to artificiality.

That sense that America is built upon a scaffolding of illusions is the subtext of the show. It's impossible to miss in Owens' "I bought the lawn in six foot rolls" (1973), a photograph of a family fitting patches of turf together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, hiding the sandy wasteland beneath. Or in Sternfeld's spectacular color photo "After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California, July 1979," which reveals the flimsiness of our nation's foundations. Sternfeld gives us a cross section of a subdivision laid low by catastrophe. Pseudo-adobe ranch houses rest on the thinnest veneer of concrete, and below that are several hundred feet of mottled beige sand.

Arbus also explored the way America rests upon such shallowness. In "A Castle in Disneyland, California" (1962), Arbus endows this gossamer icon of the Magic Kingdom with all the solid weight of an ancestral home. Disney is the closest thing we have to a national patrimony, she suggests. Never mind if it's all a fantasy land.

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