"Suburban Escape" plumbs the art of California sprawl
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.
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. The cheerful exterior schemes reflect the influx of Asian American immigrants who, the artist states in the exhibition catalog (which includes an expanded, more convincing range of works than the museum presentation), painted their houses in more vibrant colors than did most of "middle class mainstream America." The piece adds a welcome layer of social context to architecturally insignificant structures.
John Divola's provocative series Los Angeles International Airport Noise Abatement Zone, House Removal Grid, Present (1975, 2005) is one of those frighteningly irresistible before-and-after projects. It shows a collection of doomed dwellings that were in the sonic path of LAX and the empty lots after the buildings were razed. Shot in a relatively short time span in the 1970s and printed only recently, the pairings suggest the aftermath of a smart bomb that vaporizes only stucco-faced structures. All that remains are a flat landscape, stoic palm and cypress trees, and the occasional pathway to a nonexistent front door. Next to these, Free House (2003), an acrylic work by Deborah Oropallo, addresses the surprising disposability of suburban buildings with images of boarded-up toy houses — literal model homes — inspired by Berkeley structures that were worth less than the land they were erected on.
That same cheap, serial construction of houses is noted in Mark Campbell's sculpture Maximum Density (2000), a low platform covered with hundreds of tiny honey-hued rubber homes. At once seemingly organically formed and a highly constructed board game, Campbell's project is difficult not to touch yet equally difficult to reconcile. Similarly, Destroyed Houses (1999–2004), a series of 30 collage paintings by Jeff Gillette, is a gleeful deconstruction of real estate advertisements set against bucolic landscapes. Like a willful child pulling wings off flies, the artist here has devious fun destroying unaffordable homes — and the pervasive dream of owning one.SFBG
SUBURBAN ESCAPE: THE ART OF CALIFORNIA SPRAWL
Through March 4, 2007
San Jose Museum of Art
110 S. Market, San Jose
Tues.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.