"American Standard: (Para)Normality and Everyday Life," June 26-Aug. 16, 2002, organized by Gregory Crewdson at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, 515 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
In recent years, contemporary gallerists have taken to inviting one their stable of artists to organize the gallery's summer group show. Thus, "American Standard: (Para)Normality and Everyday Life" at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, organized by the photographer Gregory Crewdson.
The exhibition presents a slice of American art that is rather bland overall, though it is blandness as content, blandness as a reflection of the numbness of suburban culture. The image used to advertise the show, moreover, is a detail of a clean, polished toilet seat, presumably framed to cleverly capture the American Standard brand logo, but also underlining the notion of a sanitized life in which the messy stuff is instantly whisked out of sight.
In his introduction to the small paperback catalogue that accompanies the show, Crewdson writes that "American Standard" juxtaposes artworks that "transform the American landscape into a place of wonder and anxiety." The 20-plus artists, sculptors and photographers here range from Vija Celmins to John Currin, Robert Gober to Joel Shapiro, Robert Adams to Cindy Sherman.
But Crewdson's "American Gothic" sensibility goes a bit further. John Seabrook invented the term "Nobrow" to refer to a phenomenon of mass culture that is both "high" and "low." Consisting of everything yet nothing, Nobrow is an emptiness that evolves out of the sprawling mainstream, a space where the individual does not use modes of oppositionality as a method of self-definition. It is a state of being that has nothing to do with the catharsis of daily living. Yet this hollowed emptiness has gained supremacy recently as the non-urban esthetic has merged with the urban; the majority with the minority.
Showpiece of the exhibition was a painting by Edward Hopper, his serene Freight Cars, Gloucester (1928). Portraying an early "non site" -- an overgrown railroad siding with two boxcars, a lone telephone pole, some rooftops and a church steeple off in the distance -- the work is a good anchor for this exhibition. The painting -- which shows a dense human habitus but no actual people -- is an icon of industrialization, which made individuals more isolated even though populations increased.
Several works date from the late 1960s and early '70s, a period whose Minimalist and Photo Realist esthetics both found uncanny presence in the surface of the everyday. A watercolor by Robert Bechtle -- dated 1996, demonstrating that the pioneering Photo Realist has ably stayed the course -- portrays an older man washing a car in front of a house. The uneventful image, titled Sterling Avenue Washing the Buick, transforms the typical symbol of masculinity -- the car -- into an icon of passive independence: the ability to help oneself without staging a dramatic conflict.
Uncanny simulacra have been standard in avant-garde art since the Postmodernist '80s, and are here represented by Cindy Sherman's classic Untitled Film Still #48 (1979), in which a faceless country girl waits with her suitcase for a ride into the modern world. A more recent example is Keith Edmier's 1997 white polyvinyl sculpture of a girl, Jill Peters (borrowed, as was the huge painting by Eric Fischl, from the influential collection of New York real estate mogul Jerry Speyer). Dressed in a wig and real clothes (as Degas did with his little dancer more than 100 years ago), Edmier's sculpture makes independence synonymous with anonymity. Though purportedly a childhood friend of the artist, the figure is in fact anyone and everyone.
The filmmaker Todd Haynes (famous for Poison and Velvet Goldmine) contributes Untitled (storyboard from Safe) (1995), a series of four sketches that function as a rebus of the empty void of contemporary living. Haynes shows an empty suburban road shouldered with homes, followed by the depiction of a bedroom interior, then by a woman with a worried expression on her face. Haynes concludes his visual communiqué with the representation of a stick-figure alone within the setting of a house.
The show also includes childlike representations of houses by Maureen Gallace (2002), Joel Shapiro (1989) and Henry Wessel (1995), a 1964 grisaille painting of a gooseneck lamp by Vija Celmins and images of typical but over the top suburban activity by Joel Sternfeld (a huge sinkhole next to a fancy house), Steven Spielberg (a still from Close Encounters of Richard Dreyfuss building a dirt mountain in his living room) and Bill Owens (a family sodding their suburban lawn "in six foot rolls").
One of the younger artists in the show, Tim Davis, contributes a 2000 color photo of a New Jersey house. The camera peers over a chain link fence at the humble lower-middle-class residence, sitting in the dark but with its aluminum screen door reflecting the garish yellows and pinks of the Shell station across the way. Clearly, no one is home at grandma's house, though the windows are full of flickering lights.