A Sense Of Place
Dual exhibit features variations on dislocation and repetition
Published: May 25, 2011
Through June 11 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery
You get the sneaking suspicion Sofia Silva’s lens is coldly and efficiently judging the visual iconography of suburban America in Meditations on the Landscape of Desire. The Argentine photographer has lived in the States since 2001, and has turned her camera on the burbs as what she calls a “looking glass for contemporary mentality” in her online bio. And just as foreign directors—from Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty to Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the entire Hollywood career of Billy Wilder—can sometimes see sides of America that natives don’t, the scenes Silva captures are common enough to go otherwise unnoticed but get transformed in how she chooses to look at them. Her large-scale panorama “housing” currently on view at the C. Grimaldis Gallery sounds Hallmark-card insincere when curtly described: a line of suburban houses extending down the street, with a row of perfectly maintained red shrubbery lining the sidewalk that runs parallel to the houses. The grass is well-mowed, such a muted gray it might as well be beige. The photo doesn’t identify where this particular street is located, but a street very much like it probably exists just outside any American city.
And it’s in that overwhelming sense of sameness that “housing” starts to get under the skin a bit: In one seemingly mundane photo Silva perfectly articulates the complacent uniformity of the American suburbs, those ticky-tacky domiciles that “all look just the same” that comically run through Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes.” And if there was any doubt that “housing” is distinctly American, hanging inside the glass doors of the house closest to Silva’s camera is that passive marker of patriotic close-mindedness: an American flag.
This calm vertigo runs through all 11 of Silva’s photographs included in Meditations on the Landscape of Desire, from the seven wide-screen panoramas to the four black-and-white night prints. Silva has a keen eye for the dramatic space—a parking garage at night, the painted lines on pavement that demarcate parking spaces, the regular pattern of domestic siding—that conveys a sense of fascinating boredom. Silva recognizes the instructive vocabulary of America’s suburban architecture: The car gets parked here, the shopping carts go here, people walk here, you drive through the bank here. A place for everything and everything in its place.
Now, the American suburbs—with their fluorescent lighting, strip malls, parking lots, and planned subdivisions—have long fascinated visual artists, photographers, and writers as a funhouse mirror for the American experiment: indications of rising middle-class posterity that end up being just as troubled and roiling beneath their well-maintained surfaces as the urban areas from which their modestly affluent residents had fled. It’s a tension that has powered certain strains of American art and storytelling since the 1960s, and for many people living today the mercurial yin and yang of the suburbs are as dead-horse American clichés as baseball and apple pie.
What Silva brings to the discussion in her photographs is a genuine sense of bafflement. Through her lens, an empty parking lot looks like the completely alien landscape that it is, not merely that thing you drive by every night on your way home from work. Her “Parking Garage - Night,” which captures a ramp in a large concrete garage illuminated in the greenish glow, looks less like an ordinary place that serves a basic everyday function and more like a secret pad waiting for the mothership—or, you know, a Rapturing Jesus—to land.
This creepy fascination is amplified in her nighttime black-and-white prints, where the tonal contrasts lend the scenes an even more unsettling vibe. Silva’s shot of a going-out-of-business Linens N’ Things titled “store losing” stands out for its opportune composition, but hanging on the wall nearby is the even more fascinating “neighborhood.” It’s as bluntly simple as the aforementioned “housing,”, only it features a series of suburban homes that rests along a square communal yard area. Three lights somewhat illuminate the neighborhood, such as it is: It’s a discomforting scene, with the three floodlights showering the yard in light, but, just over the roofs, murky outlines of trees and other things in the distance are barely made out in the inky night sky, as if some threat lurking just beyond the comforting safety of the suburban home.
The only thing lurking in Lu Zhang’s mixed-media objects in her Grimaldis gallery solo show debut (Silva occupies the front two-thirds of the gallery, Zhang the back third) is a reverent sense of craftsmanship. She has included seven items in Practice, a title chosen to convey a sense of repeated action to develop a skill, according to the exhibition’s press release. And every one of these pieces is a meticulously realized object creating a sometimes obtuse personal vocabulary.
Take the objects “For Lu Zhang” and “For Zhang Lu,” which are practically identical: Each consists of a piece of a roughly two-by-four-inch board notched at the ends, painted on one side, placed aboard a very well-crafted wooden base. The painted/notched board leans against the wall, where its shadow might normally fall if lit from above in a thin strip of mirror. The notched edges reappear in the paper strips ceremonially draped over wood dowels in “Wishing Tree,” a wall-mounted work that feels curiously sacred, although you’re not quite sure why.
You sense some kind of cultural collision going on in Zhang’s works (she was born in China and grew up in Oklahoma) but how that’s being explored creatively hasn’t entirely manifested itself in her visual decisions just yet—except in the striking “Funeral Wreath.” It looks like Zhang hand made hundreds of tiny flowers out of aluminum foil and fastened them to create the nearly three-feet-wide wall-mounted wreath that hangs on Grimaldis’ wall. Its an impressive creation—a tightly compacted series of carnation-like folds that bloom in a giant, ornate silvery relic—that feels like equal parts old and new ritual: a traditional technique using a modern substance that forges its own peculiar strand of unnatural beauty.
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