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by Robert Mahoney
|Gregory Crewdson, "Twilight," Feb. 19-Mar. 25, 2000, at Luhring Augustine, 531 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y 10011.
Now in his late 30s, Gregory Crewdson has moved on from his early work -- elaborate, often dark studio constructs of nature, somewhere between Cindy Sherman and Alexis Rockman -- to studies of dysfunctional suburbia, beginning with his "Hover" series in 1996. And now, Crewdson has come forth with "Twilight," a more lavish and yet somber meditation on American middle-class life in the midst of plenty. His work is still staged -- Crewdson is straightforward in his thanks to his crew -- but his fictions are now set in real towns, not artists' studios.
His theme is also still nature in trouble, but this time it is the Berkshires in upstate New York. While blazingly beautiful in his photos, this landscape seems invisible to his tract-house subjects, whose lives are circumscribed by SUVs, beer, cheap toys, yard sale hauls, used cars, dirty rugs, wood paneling, cheesy pictures and … not much more. Only at the witching hour, at twilight, do Crewdson's subjects seek some higher meaning. In his new psycho/sociological content, Crewdson may also have absorbed, by ricochet, influences from some of his students at Yale, including Anna Gaskell, Justine Kurland and Katy Grannan. Throw in a dash of panoramic Jeff Wall, and you have a new Gregory Crewdson.
The creepiest works are the indoor shots, which could be dubbed "cabin fever soliloquies." These works derive from the American cultural trope of the mad scientist or nutty professor. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with its scene of Richard Dreyfus obsessively building a dirt model of the Devil's Tower in his living room, linked the tradition with science fiction.
In Crewdson's Untitled (Sod Man) -- all works are dated 1999 -- the subject is so nuts from his off-season business downturn that he has taken to laying turf in his crummy little living room. In the middle of this secret business, a light breaks through a hole in the floor and startles him. The protagonist in Untitled (Rug Lady) sits on the floor at the sunset hour, communing with the light falling on her carpet. Perhaps the Rug Lady sees some mystical face in the carpet -- for a moment she is the vestal virgin of a private cult.
In Untitled (Woman in Flowers), we see a woman who has redecorated her kitchen in a way that should worry the hubby, due home soon. She has planted a teeming garden on her kitchen floor. She surveys her handiwork, on her knees in her nightgown -- she never got dressed -- drenched through with sweat, her breasts, thighs and knees covered in potting soil. In her ecstasy, she is more emotionally exposed than she has been for years.
Phases in the seasonal life of florists or sod men? Preparations for local flower festivals? Private acting outs? Individual expressions of ancient holiday rituals? Secret Candlemas rituals against the darkness? However one might interpret these acts, to me they read as elegies on the American Dream, a dream not for material gain alone, but also for the ever-receding hope of personal transcendence.
When Crewdson shoots out of doors, in full view of the neighbors' eyes, the doings are acted a bit more conventionally. Untitled (Beer Dream) shows a man, who has left a party, six pack in hand, only to be suddenly struck by a shaft of alien light from above. Untitled (Bud Man) shows a guy lying face down beside his truck, sniffed by wolves but apparently unappetizing to them.
In Untitled (House Fire), a family comes home from a yard sale, their car packed with junk, to find their home on fire. The woman pictured in Untitled (Sleep Walker) might have reason to be embarrassed, standing out on the front lawn, showing her fat figure in her industrial-strength underwear to the neighbors -- though I have the feeling that everyone is way past caring. Finally, with Untitled (Girl in Window), Crewdson shows a girl gazing blankly from a window. It is twilight, and a miraculous event has occurred, for who has ever seen the very rare Cecropia and Luna moths, among many others, on the same window pane?
Crewdson has translated his former interests into Golden Bough narratives rich in significance, describing the way that Americans ca. 2000 are coping in their never-ending search for a wonder commensurate with their dreams.
ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.