Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

David Lefkowitz show at Cheekwood

It took me a while to get over to see this show in Temporary Contemporary at Cheekwood—it’s only up until Sunday. Worth a stop if you are around town this week. What else you got to do?

David Lefkowitz does paintings of the built landscape, particularly what you associate with cars—highways, tourism—and modern architecture in its various guises. One painting, “Outlying Area,” was particularly perceptive. It’s an aerial view of an indistinct exurban landscape dominated by a complex set of highway interchanges. Some of the islands between the roadways are occupied by isolated structures of uncertain purpose. The ground is painted in vaguely winter tones of greens, grays, and browns, but no vegetation or topography is distinguishable. The key detail is that the bits of roadway are labeled with the names of fabled roads of all sorts—Champs-Elysees, Broadway, Division Street, Route 66, the Natchez Trace, the Oregon Trail, the Spice Road, the Nile, Elm Street. Whether it’s the almost mythic qualities of the Spice Road, the frontier history of the Trace, an archetypal small town “tree” street, or the multi-ethnic working class urban life of Terkel and Algren’s Division Street, each of these roads had life-giving character, qualities that differentiated and distinguished it, that added to store of human experience. The brutally efficient bands of concrete of the Eisenhower interstate system offer nothing like that. They are just empty space that get you from here to there. The time spent on them is lost. You learn nothing from these roads. No books or songs will be written about them. In this painting Lefkowitz succinctly puts his finger on what is lost in these contemporary landscapes and in our way of life.

The rest of the show has different bits and pieces—he packs a lot into the one room gallery. There are pennants of non-existent, ridiculous tourist destinations, maybe a little broad by themselves, but effective in context. Various depictions of unknown modern buildings made out of cardboard boxes (and in one case painted on cardboard). Blurry diptychs of sections of highway at different times of day. And several paintings of imaginary cities floating over aerial views of landscape, projections of future developments on the green fields if Italo Calvino was the developer. In one of those paintings, several clusters of buildings with red-tile roofs are bunched on the pods of a suburban cul-de-sac street system. Each cluster has an exotic name, like Zorgi or Brusto. The appearance of these exotic, evocative little settlements on the cul-de-sacs points out something similar to the famous labels on the highways, the profoundly uninteresting quality of structures we build today. These structures consume a lot of resources, but somehow they contain nothing of us, no trace of humanity.

So you’ve got this imagination of landscapes in the Temporary Contemporary gallery, and the main show at Cheekwood offers photos of notable American house gardens from the early 1900s, places like Cheekwood, Winterthur in Delaware, or Dumbarton Oaks in DC. These are artificial landscapes, spectacular yes, but definitely the realization of imagination. With enough money, one could commission this sort of transformation of the natural world into perfectly lovely sequences and vistas. Dumbarton Oaks is one of my favorite places on earth. For me, it is what heaven should be like. It was nice to see some photos of it. Beyond feeding my nostalgia, the show didn’t seem to have much to offer.

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