City Paper is not for tourists
“Todd Hido: …in search of…”
At G Fine Art to Feb. 1
At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Feb. 10
It’s been more than 50 years since the first 300 families moved into Levittown, N.Y., a former potato field that became the model for generations of mass-produced housing developments in America. That’s given artists a good long time to chew over the greater significance of suburbia. By now, you’d think we’d all have gotten the topic out of our system for a while—or at least come up with a new way of looking at it.
Apparently not. A pair of new exhibitions, “Todd Hido: …in search of…” at G Fine Art and “Homeland” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, have stepped forward to plumb the depths of American domesticity once again. And though much of the art on display offers plenty of visual interest, genuine insight is in short supply.
The common thread between the two shows is Todd Hido, a photographer based in San Francisco; both exhibitions feature works from his recent books House Hunting and Outskirts. Hido works at night, wandering the Bay Area’s working- and lower-middle-class neighborhoods in search of unpretentious houses. When he finds one he likes, he sets up his tripod at the side of the road and makes an exposure that can last 10 minutes or more. He uses only available light: street lamps, front-porch lights, lingering twilight, even the blue of televisions glowing behind sheer curtains.
There’s little doubt that Hido’s project is aesthetically compelling. Untitled #2523, on view at the Corcoran, features power lines, a highway guardrail, and a row of seemingly identical houses receding into the distance, undulating gracefully as if they were within some noirish landscape painted by Grant Wood. Untitled #2871-A, also at the Corcoran, shows a vinyl-sided rambler coated with a perfect carpet of snow; it’s enclosed almost symmetrically by an impenetrably black band of asphalt in the foreground and an unnaturally bright swath of sky in the background.
Indeed, Hido’s geometries are almost always well-composed, his locales almost always impressively moody. But in many ways, his photographs are precisely what we’ve come to expect: By presenting suburbia as empty and ugly—or even as full of hidden beauty—they teach us little that’s new. G Fine Art’s Untitled #2595, for example, captures an apartment building studded with a row of air-conditioning units and mostly darkened windows. Against a fading blue twilight, the building emanates a nauseating green pallor, looking more like a jail than a private residence. Similarly, the concertina wire and fast-food dumpster in Untitled #2646-A overshadow the attractively stuccoed and tiled building they adjoin. You really can’t get much more literal about suburban soullessness than that. Or maybe you can: The most prominent feature in Untitled #2522, an image of a tidily lined parking lot, is an urgently accusatory sign: “NO DUMPING ALLOWED.”
In each case, the viewer’s sense of unease and dislocation is heightened by Hido’s shooting his subjects at night with color film, which captures light at its eeriest. By itself, this is a fruitful exercise, if for no other reason than, historically speaking, the approach is unusual. In 1897 and 1898, Alfred Stieglitz made several snowy nighttime images of the Savoy Hotel and other sites in New York; a decade later, Edward Steichen made an impressionistic, blue-tinted image of New York’s Flatiron Building at dusk. In the ’30s and ’40s, Brassai made a career out of photographing Paris at night.
But these masters did their work in monochrome. Only recently have Hido and others begun fusing night-captured colors with intimate architectural—or at least semiarchitectural—subjects. Last May, photographer and Yale professor Gregory Crewdson published Twilight, a book of 40 carefully staged photographs depicting the fictionalized weirdness going on in the modest neighborhoods of Lee, Mass. Unlike Hido’s images, Crewdson’s sometimes feature people—but the spooky lighting and unnatural stillness of the two artists are so similar that some of Crewdson’s photographs could easily pass for Hido’s.
Also suggestive of Hido’s work are the photographs of Californian John Divola. Divola’s book Isolated Houses chronicles modest buildings in the Mojave Desert, each framed against boundless land and sky. Although many of Divola’s photographs were taken during the day, others were made at twilight, and the architectural forms of both types of pieces resonate strongly with those depicted in Hido’s work.
Their respective bodies of work aren’t perfect, but at least Crewdson and Divola have given themselves more interesting themes to work with than Hido has. Though Crewdson’s freak show sometimes seems a bit over the top—and though his book’s 10-page “Production Notes and Credits” section comes off as unduly self-important—he does at least create a coherent, if loopy, little universe for viewers to puzzle over. Divola, for his part, documents a very specific—and to outsiders, quite unexpected—community of little houses (they’re all located near Twentynine Palms, Calif.) that are decaying slowly and erratically; he also identifies his subjects only by their latitude and longitude, a comment on how the meaning of “isolated” has changed in the era of the all-seeing global-positioning satellite.
And Hido’s work? Beyond the refined compositions and spectacular lighting, the payoff is too small. We all know suburbia can be unsightly and soulless, just as we all know it can be very much the opposite. And if we need to be reminded of either, we can all go down to Blockbuster and rent American Beauty.
The Corcoran’s “Homeland” show, featuring the work of six artists, is billed as “a timely investigation of unpopulated suburban environments and domestic spaces by artists using photography, video and digital media. Mimicking surveillance strategies and techniques, the artists in ‘Homeland’ document neighborhoods, houses and interiors in seemingly typical suburban America.” For the most part, however, the artists involved don’t do much better than Hido in saying something compelling about this particular milieu.
New Yorker Michael Fisher and Washingtonian Kate MacDonnell focus mostly on the interior scenes of suburbia. In Untitled (Portrait), Fisher nicely splits a painting of a rather sad-looking child by overlaying it with the reflection of a curtained window. In Untitled (Pokemon), he channels the monomania of modern childhood by documenting the wall of a child’s bedroom plastered with Pokemon paraphernalia; the only non-Pokemon item within view is a crucifix. For her part, MacDonnell skillfully captures the fleeting presence of moist footprints on blue terrycloth.
But most of their other images, like Hido’s, travel well-covered ground. MacDonnell’s Untitled (1998), for instance, captures a brown shag rug and part of a white home appliance—a scene of prosaic domesticity of the sort that has been handled much more persuasively by Uta Barth, a University of California, Riverside, professor who’s known for her defiantly out-of-focus photographs. And some of Fisher’s works—whether self-consciously or not—call to mind the imagery of the well-known Southern photographer William Eggleston, as well as that of the less-well-known Jack Kotz, who recently had a show at the Ralls Collection. Fisher’s Untitled (Passthrough) features a very Eggleston-esque image of an odd, slightly off-center pass-through window leading into a messy kitchen; his Untitled (Christ Picture) captures a cheesy-looking couch with a mawkishly embroidered throw and a wall full of religious items.
The problem for Fisher is that the art of both Eggleston and Kotz is rooted firmly in specific places—Memphis, Tenn., in Eggleston’s case, and Hardin County, Tenn., and Webster and Choctaw Counties, Miss., in Kotz’s. At least part of the reason why Eggleston and Kotz photograph personal interiors is to document things that signify their appreciation for such locales. Fisher, by contrast, chronicles anonymous interiors to explore, as “Homeland”‘s brochure puts it, “how the personal is revealed in the commercially compromised environment of the suburban home.” The multiple anonymities involved—the absent resident, the unspecified geographical location, and the mass-produced possessions—leave the enterprise too diffuse to establish any emotional resonance. Is there really anything profound to be learned from Fisher’s Untitled (Novels)—a stack of books, a candle, a clock radio, and a bottle of medicine on a nightstand next to a plush bed?
From a technical perspective, local photographer Jason Falchook’s work is more impressive. His images—most of them shown last year at Fusebox—are typically fuzzy-focused and taken from an ant’s-eye perspective. But unlike Barth, whose entirely-out-of-focus images appear thoroughly dreamlike, Falchook establishes a narrow plane of focus in the middle distance even as he leaves the rest of the scene blurry, setting up an intriguing visual tension. In The Offing, Falchook used this approach to depict a Floridian roadway; in Unfurl/Repose, to capture a suburban backyard. But despite—or perhaps because of—its virtuosity, Falchook’s work is ultimately unsatisfying: It seems to be more an exercise in technique than an exploration of contemporary life.
Two videos bookend the show. Near the entrance is Norwegian artist Sven Pahlsson’s digital animation Sprawlville or Life at the End of the Highway Ramp. The piece shows computer-generated suburban landscapes from the air, but its literalism and monotony make it difficult to watch. Susan Black’s 2002 video Home, by contrast, is dazzling—even if the methodology behind the work is so pedestrian as to be laughable: Black drove around upscale suburbs with a video camera attached to her car door upside-down.
Black’s vision, for all its simplicity, is exhilarating, with crisp visuals and a palpably vertiginous feel. In Home, houses and trees appear precariously suspended, while cars, RVs, and lawn ornaments seem attached to the ground-cum-sky as if by magnets. The closest visual parallel I could think of is the reflection of a built-up lakeside community in the water, but that doesn’t fully encompass Black constantly moving video. It’s obvious that the Scotland-based artist has polished the idea over time: Heaven on Earth, also on view at the Corcoran, was made two years earlier and is much less impressive. It features an unnecessary soundtrack and was shot at too oblique an angle to sustain the illusion that Home so convincingly carries off.
I initially hated myself for liking Home so much. At some level, it’s not much more than a parlor trick. Yet Black achieves something that neither Hido nor the other artists in “Homeland” can manage: She recasts our view of suburbia in a way that’s clever rather than redundant. CP