Visiting the “World’s Away: Suburban Landscapes,” Ogilvy and his professor, photographer John Lehr (whose work is included in the show), discuss why we pray in McDonald’s.
BO: One of the most interesting things about “Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes” for me is the way in which it balances a number of different approaches to seeing and understanding the suburbs. There seems to be this common notion of the suburbs as a sort of dangerous force pushing outward across America and eating up the country, but some of the work in this show, like Julia Christensen’s “Big Box Reuse” pictures (photographs centered around the ways in which communities have taken over abandoned big-box retail stores and repurposed them for things like churches or schools) start to show a potentially generative, positive side to sprawl.
JL: It’s something that I think happens in the whole show. It is recognizing that this stuff is part of the ecosystem of our culture now. I know I think about that a lot with my pictures — the fact that this stuff has been injected into our environment and somehow we’re going to personalize it, and torque it and tweak it to not only meet our needs, but also reflect our own idiosyncrasies and individual intentions. That’s one of the things that I think is interesting about a lot of the work in this show. It’s looking at that. It’s looking at the idea that this is this world that is being presented to us, and we’ve come to it for many different reasons, and now it’s getting older, you know, it’s getting our fingerprint on it in a way that it hasn’t previously.
BO: Yeah. Since I was born and raised in the suburbs myself, I don’t really have any other world to compare them to, so approaching them as an artist, it feels almost as though there is no other choice than to see them in a personal way, and not just through the typical clichés of blandness, boredom and homogeneity. It’s just my world.
JL: Yeah, it’s just our world.
BO: This show presents itself as “New Suburban Landscapes,” but at this point the suburban landscape is almost synonymous with the American landscape. It’s almost irrelevant to talk about the suburbs as a subject anymore.
JL: It’s just where we live. It’s funny, there are as many McDonald’s in New York City now as there are anywhere, maybe more. I’m looking at Angela [Strassheim’s] picture of the McDonald’s [Untitled (McDonald’s) 2004] and there’s no way to tell that it’s in a suburb, it’s just a McDonald’s. There’s a proliferation of this kind of easily recognizable, accessible kind of place to buy food, or clothes, or go to church. Maybe that idea began in the suburbs, but it has pervaded every aspect of our culture. I like that you see that history in this picture: There’s the mural in the background of an older McDonald’s design, and now McDonalds is just as human as prayer.
BO: Another thing that I think a lot of the work in this show talks about is the sorts of clichés surrounding the idea of the American Dream. I think Gregory Crewdson’s pictures in particular are interesting in the way that they seem to talk about the darker side of this idea, the repressed qualities of human life in this equation.
JL: I think you see that in these pictures. The kind of insatiable hunger for something natural, for something beautiful. I think that’s part of the dream that people pursue in the suburbs. You want a place that’s your own, you want to be closer to nature, but one of the things we learn from Robert Adams’ pictures is that as people spread out from cities to be closer to nature, they end up being even more sectioned off. And here, in Crewdson’s picture [Untitled from the series Dreamhouse 2002 (cat. no. 16)], you’re seeing a dad outside in this giant garden that he’s made, juxtaposed with the blandness of the interior space, where the only thing that seems really natural is the pattern on the chair. There’s this idea of a manufactured beauty that’s coming from a desire that’s really universal.
In the other picture here [Untitled form the series Dreamhouse 2002 (cat. No. 15)], there’s that kind of alien, paranormal light source that’s emanating from the car. There’s this unexpected natural disaster that’s happened in this neighborhood, but it doesn’t seem catastrophic, it seems magical somehow.
BO: It’s almost a liberating moment. Everything feels at peace.
JL: Crewdson has talked about the idea of shooting all the pictures at twilight because it’s the transition between conscious life and unconscious life, or between day living and night dreaming. All of the pictures walk that line between something that is very real and believable and something that is really magical and dreamlike.
BO: In the catalogue for this exhibition, the curator Andrew Blauvelt talks about the suburbs as being in a sort of constant “in-between” state, and I think that Crewdson’s twilight seems to be a good metaphor for that idea. Suburbia becomes this world that exists not only in between the urban and the rural but also in between our fantasies and real experiences.