There's a sort of ghostly vibe around SUBURBIA, the upcoming four-artist exhibit at the Galleries of Contemporary Art. It's as if we're seeing artifacts of a lost dream — in particular, the quintessential pursuit of life in the suburbs.
If they could speak, Phil Bender's arrays of ordinary objects, including rolling pins, candy tins and checkerboards, might tell us that the Cleavers will return at any moment to resume their work and play.
"They become abstract compositions," says GOCA director Daisy McConnell. "You really start to appreciate the subtlety and the rhythms of 1930s potato mashers."
And what to think about Chris Coleman and Michael Salter's "digital paintings," these videos of blank, bland facades? In one, an impassive-looking house is accompanied by a soundtrack of rustling wind and far-off sirens. Just as it seems nothing will ever happen — spoiler alert — a bird immolates itself on a power line and smoke begins pouring from the house.
As the video loops, normalcy returns, with nary a weed in the manicured lawn or a grease spot on the driveway. But we'll never know what secrets wait inside that house.
"You have these sort of markers of human existence, you know that people are there, but as often happens in these neighborhoods, you don't actually see people," McConnell says.
Salter, an "obsessive observer" who teaches at the University of Oregon, creates computer-generated drawings and sends them to Coleman, who teaches at the University of Denver. They confer on the narrative and illustrations until they come up with "familiar places and quizzically unfamiliar stories," Salter says from Eugene.
The exhibit is rounded out by Michael Whiting's sculptures, what McConnell calls "little pixel-primitive creatures," made of painted steel and strongly influenced by early computer graphics.
"You think, 'How cute.' Maybe we prefer nature this way," she says. "We want our meat packaged in the grocery store; we don't want to actually go and kill a cow."
The exhibit's only human faces appear in Bender's collections: on some of his tennis rackets featuring athletes active decades ago, and on the old magazine ads that serve as milestones marking our society's evolution from 1950s values.
McConnell cautions that the exhibit, conceived by her former co-director, Caitlin Green, is not meant to be cynical; instead, the artists feel affection for their subject matter.
As Salter puts it, "I think our identity as Americans is shaken, and suburbia is part of that identity. The idea of sidewalks and backyard swing sets and neighborhood picnics is still pretty awesome, but it takes two careers, a heck of a lot of commuting, and more stress than it was supposed to. I look at suburbia with a melancholy sentiment."
Maybe that's appropriate for this homage to monotony, a yearning to return to the time before we awakened from the American Dream.