Suburbia seduces in Art & Architecture

For two months this year, the modern concrete edifice on the corner of York and Chapel streets will play host to an unusual sight: white picket fences.

The second of the four major annual exhibitions at the gallery in Paul Rudolph Hall, “Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes” will explore the culture of American suburbia through photographs, paintings and other multimedia objects. The exhibit opened Monday and will be on display until May 10.

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Paul Needham
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“The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life,” co-curator Andrew Blauvelt wrote in an essay accompanying the exhibition. “The ability to engage a subject like suburbia from a new perspective is an opportunity that now presents itself.”

“Worlds Away” came to the University following the success of a similar exhibition at the gallery in 2007 called “A Field Guide to Sprawl,” which featured aerial photographs of urban landscapes, Art and Architecture Gallery Director of Exhibitions Dean Sakamoto said.

“What we felt like we needed to do for this show was to bring the topic of the suburbs down to eye level,” Sakamoto said. “We’re making the banal interesting.”

Divided into what the curators called the three “r” ’s of the suburb — residential homes, retail developments and roads — “Worlds Away” employs a variety of media to convey multiple, often contradictory messages about the cultural phenomenon of suburbia. Among the artworks on display are a brightly colored mural that shows deities from Indian mythology and encourages viewers to recycle, a 1980 video about the opening ceremonies for a catalog showroom company and a sculpture of a snowman with scrambled facial features and body parts.

Some pieces reflect on the potential for suburbs’ potential to play a beneficial role in society. A number of design studios exhibited their past or present architectural plans in suburbia, such as the firm Fashion Architecture Taste’s current project in the Dutch town of Hoogvliet. Meanwhile, the suburban house under construction in Sarah McKenzie’s painting “Site” suggests the possibility for positive change using a varied arrangement of lines and colors.

Other artists present a much more pessimistic view of suburbia, as seen in Larry Sultan’s photographic documentation of the pornographic film industry in the San Fernando Valley and Angela Strassheim’s examination of American consumerism in her photograph, “Untitled (McDonald’s).”

Blauvelt noted that the exhibition came at a time of change for the cultural stereotypes about suburbs and their inhabitants.

“As the suburban landscape evolved, its demographic composition has also changed,” Blauvelt wrote. “But while the definition of a suburb is vague and varied, the concept of suburbia remains potent.”

Although only a few art lovers made the trek through the day’s blizzard — roughly a dozen had signed the installation’s guestbook by day’s end — three visitors interviewed by the News gave “Worlds Away” high praise.

“I thought it was well done,” said Kevin Adkisson ’12, a prospective architecture major who described himself as a frequent patron of the gallery. “It was interesting to have art pieces of suburbia itself and not just another exhibit about suburban sprawl.”

There will be a reception for the exhibition following Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen’s lecture “Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics” in the gallery on March 26.

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