Suburban life has always been a bundle of paradoxes. Just as soon as owning a modest rambler on a quarter-acre lot with enough backyard to roll out a Slip ‘n Slide became a cornerstone of the American Dream, it also began to represent everything that is misguided and disturbing about American life. Beneath that thin veneer of normalcy, so the myth goes, lies a festering sewer of angst, a wasteland of conformity and materialism that reduces life to a job, six hours of TV a day and a trip to Home Depot on the weekends. The sprawl, the isolation, the excessive lawn care—it’s all so creepy, so Stepford.
But if the burbs are so awful, why does more than half the American population live in them? And unless the majority of Americans are hopeless dullards (a possibility that cannot, alas, be entirely ruled out), how can the suburbs themselves be as dull as people seem to think?
They’re not, of course—one simply needs to know how to look at them. John Cheever fashioned an entire literary career out of suburban hypocrisy (or, as we city dwellers like to call it—gossip). In recent years, the industrial-entertainment complex has given us plenty of subversive suburban intrigue (Pleasantville, American Beauty, The Sopranos, Desperate Housewives, The Riches), and now—hard as it may be to fathom—the Walker Art Center has stepped into the breach with Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, a show dedicated to, if nothing else, the cultural legitimacy of suburbia.
Worlds Away has taken up residence in the gallery recently abandoned by Frida Kahlo, and it is both more and less than one might expect. Architect Teddy Cruz’s mural of the political and practical dynamics of developing intelligent housing options along the California/Tijuana border is a mind numbing cluster of circles and arrows and photos that should probably be studied for an hour or two if you hope to make any sense of it. Likewise, some of the displays that dive deep into dilemmas of civic engineering and various re-uses of abandoned mall space look more like the kind of thing you’d see at a MnDOT planning meeting.
The show is arranged in three parts—architecture, car culture, and retail—but the most interesting (and entertaining) parts are less about the suburbs than they are about artists who have found something interesting to do with the layers of contradiction and pretense that conceal the “truth” about suburbia. Many of the photos have an entirely intentional “things are not what they seem” quality. One of the best is a photo by Larry Sultan that at first glance looks like some nice people lounging on a couch in a living room. A closer look reveals a movie camera and lights on the back patio with a guy holding a light meter over a pair of sprawled legs. Suddenly it’s clear that they’re shooting a porn film and the people on the couch are actors waiting for their cue—which is, evidently, a popular and lucrative use of suburban Los Angeles real estate.
Another interesting series features aerial photographs by Edward Ruscha of various empty parking lots. They are not pretty photos, but what’s fascinating are the patterns of oil stains left by the thousands of cars that have parked in those spaces; the wear and tear of a million individual shopping trips. It’s difficult to say what these pictures tell us beyond the fact that people at malls like to park as close to the door as possible, but the photos are undeniably mesmerizing in a Google–satellite-view sort of way.
The show is not without a sense of humor, though. By far my favorite piece is a photograph by Lee Stoetzel that looks from a distance like an ordinary suburban McMansion. But look closer and you can see that the house is actually made from pieces of McDonald’s food and packaging, with crumbled hamburger for a driveway (“ground” beef—get it?) and drink-cup lids for windows. A special nod must also go out to artist Stefanie Nagorka, who has created a sculpture entirely out of patio paving stones, something she apparently does for fun on the back lot at Menard’s when no one is looking.
There’s more, but the exhibit was only about 80 percent assembled for the press walk through. All in all, Worlds Away offers an extremely cerebral take on the idea of suburbia, and to the credit of curators Andrew Blauvelt and Tracy Myers, almost none of it is what you might expect. You won’t find anything here about the alarming proliferation of holiday lights in Eden Prairie or the existential implications of life in a cul-de-sac, but there are plenty of thought-provoking tidbits to browse and contemplate.
Rest assured that the mystery of the burbs will still be intact when you walk out. Which is as it should be, for there are some things in American life that cannot and should not be explained away—Chemlawn, Hummers, and lawn ornaments among them.