Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Suburban Baroque

Terry Thacker, the incoming head of the Fine Arts Department at Watkins College, says that our culture has entered a new Baroque era, enraptured by melodrama, visual complexity, and technical virtuosity. Thacker sees it across the culture, in music like Outkast as well as visual art. The idea of a new Baroque era is out there elsewhere, like in the New York Times article in November about the Chelsea art scene where an ostentatious gallery culture has arisen.

Perhaps as a serendipitous encouragement to the people of Nashville to get with this trend, the Frist Center currently has a big show of Baroque and Mannerist paintings from the Wadsworth Athenaeum. And as if to make an explicit transition from the 17th century to today, the Contemporary Art Project gallery tucked away on the first floor has an exhibit from photographer Gregory Crewdson that fits the new Baroque model, with elaborately staged dramatic scenes in lurid colors and unnatural lighting. His visual vocabulary owes a lot to films like Blue Velvet and the rest of David Lynch’s oeuvre, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, any number of sci-fi movies and TV shows that involve alien abductions, and the films of Peter Greenaway. Here’s a few of the photos in the exhibit:

Crewdson’s scenes fall into three groups: interior scenes, medium shot exteriors (from a ground level angle), and long-range exterior shots (from an elevated angle). In the interiors, he takes over a room of a house, alters it in ways such as cutting floorboards and filling the room with sod or flowers, or punching a hole in the roof and hoisting an uprooted tree into the space. He places usually one, sometimes more, models/actors in the space, where they look out into the distance, seemingly lost in thought, zoned out and sleepwalking, or in some absurd project of interior gardening or landscaping like Richard Dreyfus building the model of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters. Some of the photos are subtly allusive, such as “untitled (bedroom tree),” which puts a tree in the bedroom like the house Odysseus built for Penelope. While Odysseus built the house and bed around the tree, in Crewdson’s scene it seems to be getting extracted it or put in after the fact. Crewdson’s version of the story subverts the original’s underlying values. Where the bedroom tree in the Odyssey represented an abiding love and marital relationship, in Crewdson’s photo the tree is part of some strange nighttime alteration project, something you can just take out or insert into the room, although it can only be done crudely, at great trouble and leaving behind a mess to clean up.

These are obviously very expensive pictures to make. They require physical alteration of the structure, extensive stage dressing that includes importing quantities of dirt or flowers or other material, and a cinematic lighting capability. One figures every detail is precisely selected.

The resulting image, especially in these interior shots, is surprisingly painterly. The lighting, often over-bright like the lights of an alien ship (or car or helicopter), catches motes in the air that soften the picture and make it slightly hazy.

The exterior long shots were the most interesting to me. They have lots of information, and you can’t tell what details Crewdson planted and which ones were just there. These pieces are more purely photographic, both in the sense of making use of the visual qualities of the world as the artist finds it, and with harder image edges. The staging of “untitled (yankee septic emergency)” start with a series of port-a-johns, one of which emits smoke and bright light. A worker from a septic service stands in front of it with the hose from his truck, seemingly unsure what to do about it. Just behind the port-a-johns there’s a house where a group of men play horseshoes and sit around, unconcerned with the septic emergency. Further into the picture a whole bunch of trucks and other vehicles are parked close together, including a GE truck and a dark school bus that could be a prison bus. You figure Crewdson arranged for the horseshoe players, but wonder about the trucks, whether he collected them or found them, and if he found them this way, why so many are parked there. As your eye goes further into the distance you see hills covered in summer foliage, power lines, the typical aspects of landscape. But the odd scene staged in the foreground call everything into question, whether it is normal or strange, fabricated or not.

The interior shots have a more immediate, lurid strangeness, but I distrust the excessively stagey quality, too close for comfort to David Lynch’s observation of a deeply strange suburbia. The exterior shots bring to bear more tensions that are inherent to these works and the medium. The interplay between recording the physical world and exercising the artistic right to design an art work can cause difficulty, like Arthur Rothstein’s Depression Era photo of a cattle skull–a documentary photograph of a scene which Rothstein altered to make more dramatic. Crewdson has no reason not to embrace the tension between making and finding, and in his case the artificiality of the clearly staged material bleeds into the final world and infects it with strangeness and uncertainty.


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