Fits and housing starts

"Suburban Escape" plumbs the art of California sprawl
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REVIEW There's a new multistory condo complex rising on a sliver of SoMa between the freeway and the Caltrain tracks. It's on one of those heretofore undesirable plots that stood vacant for decades, holding their own as a weedy buffer zone between transportation and industry. I wonder if the contractors are using a new high-tech glass that, in the space of a faux bay window, will neutralize the din of traffic. Who'd want to live there?
San Francisco is an urban area, don't you know. But the way space here is quickly filling in with homes is reflective of a broader condition of (until recently) a healthy real estate market and the resulting sprawl. It's something I experience when visiting family in unapologetically suburban Southern California. Just outside my old neighborhood, with streets named to invoke the American Revolution — Freedom Drive, Liberty Bell Road — were oak-shaded dry creek beds where I headed for adolescent escapes. Those once-wooded areas have been shaped into fields of roomy new houses in an unspecific Mediterranean stucco style. The arteries there are named after trees — Spruce Drive, Cedar Lane — that I don't recall being indigenous. Is it progress or loss?
California denizens cannot avoid the quandaries of safe, "affordable" homes and the problematic environmental effects of building auto-centric communities far from any sort of civic center. The state then makes a fitting geographical framing device for a small but notable exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. "Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl" brings together a couple dozen artists who picture a half century of development in photographs, painting, video, and sculpture, revealing the allure and shortcomings of suburbia.
While compact and high density rather than sprawling and homogenous, "Suburban Escape" manages to address numerous social and cultural concerns, the first of which is the literal, almost sculptural creation of suburbs. At the start curator Ann Wolfe shows us distant views of cookie-cutter homes. The first piece is William Garnett's grid of six black-and-white aerial photographs documenting the 1950 construction of the Lakewood, a Southern California community that from above looks like fields of housing starts that sprouted into a grid of cubelike buildings. They're a perfect complement to Robert Isaacs's 1968 photograph Ticky Tacky Houses in Daly City, an equally geometric composition that inspires waves of comfort and revulsion. The uniformity looks appealingly orderly from a distance, but the idea of living in houses so similar and close together is another concern altogether, something fraught with unsustainable foundations, not to mention nosy neighbors.
RUDE VIBRATIONS
Suburbia is rife with ambivalent vibes, and they are noted throughout the show. Bill Owens's photo of a Fourth of July block party expresses a cul-de-sac comfort zone and clean, new neighborliness. And yet, the picture also conveys the psychic isolation of spacious lots. Just one photo from Owens's 1970s-era Suburbia series isn't enough to convey his vision, although this picture speaks volumes.
Mimicking the physical structure of housing tracts, a number of the artists work in series. Freshly Painted Houses, a grid of small 1991 color photos by Jeff Brouws, shows the Daly City neighborhood where the artist grew up during the 1960s.

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