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Suburbia: The State of Being Modern Art

July 28, 2010

Several months ago, I accompanied my American Images photography class to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After roaming from exhibit to exhibit, we stopped in a room on the third floor. This particular room was filled with roughly twenty enlarged photographs, ranging from a vibrant image of burning palm trees (“Desert Fire #1, Burning Palms” by Richard Misrach) to several images of the suburban landscape. When asked by the tour guide which images we were least drawn to, it was unanimous that the photos of suburbia appealed to no one. However, when I looked closer at these images, I realized that both were based locally in Santa Clarita. One image was of tract homes, and the other was Joe Deal’s “Magic Mountain, Valencia, California.”

After coming to this realization, I first felt as though my betrayal had been exposed. I then began to feel a sudden affinity with these photographs—images of my home. I was isolated in that four-walled room filled with spectators. The experience I had with these photographs was strangely reminiscent of my experience with the suburbs. From far away, everything looks the same; but from within, you really begin to see the threads that tie the city together. Each thread is an essential part of the whole.

The first photograph is an image of a tan stucco house on the end of a cul-de-sac; this photograph was taken from the rear of the home so that the rest of the street remains visible. The latter photograph is of a roller coaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain in the still-developing Santa Clarita Valley (although isn’t suburbia in a constant state of development?). My initial reaction was shadowed by my secondary feelings. I had to remind myself that art is subjective and never objective. While being portrayed in either black and white or dismal lighting, the photographs lacked a certain energy and effervescence that the other photographs in the room possessed. Yes, most of the people in the room were from the city or even suburbs outside of it; but none of them had been raised in the actual subject of the photograph. I longed to simultaneously embrace and reject the photographed places; I longed to be alone and to belong. However, no matter how much I want to evade the truth, the suburbs are still an innate part of my being.

Months later, I still reflect upon this experience. It was difficult for me to associate these photographs with art since they were of familiar places. No one in the class was drawn to these photographs, and I wanted to escape them. However, isn’t this part of what makes an image art? Whether positive or negative, these photographs inspire some sort of reaction in people. Yes, they may not be to the taste of many, but they still make people think, “Why doesn’t this image make me feel?” Could it be the excessive symmetry? Or the seeming blandness of the landscape? I would argue that although these images appear bland, they are making a statement nonetheless. My initial reaction was to glance over them; but upon further study they have haunted me. What are the photographs saying about amusement or the system of housing in suburbia? How does suburbia fit into modern art?

An image that arguably has a greater initial impact is Joel Sternfeld’s “Canyon Country, California” (at top). A father sits with his blond-haired daughter upon a wall that separates his tract home from the others on the street. Again, the colors are dim; they are mostly gray or tan. The father is looking directly at the camera, whereas the daughter is looking into the distance. Although this is an image of suburban family life, the tone of the photograph is somber. What is the daughter looking at? Is the father satisfied with the life he has made?

Has the image of suburbia become the quintessential American image? Or is it merely a documentation of a social experiment? Sternfeld’s photograph could be found in any suburban family’s home. We all have our own version of this. Although this photograph is strangely familiar, it is still art. Art does not necessarily have to be vanguard to be considered art. Suburbia can inspire art, and art can be made in suburbia as well. An outsider’s view of this community will never be the same as an artist’s who has experienced it firsthand. Suburban art comes in many forms, from direct images, to art made exclusively for the home, to art that is a complete rejection of the home. Suburbia produces unique and talented artists that have something to say about where they were raised. However, we need to stop hiding behind the closed doors of our uniform homes. We are incapable of not making a statement with what we create; we just need to speak a little louder.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Elaine Newton permalink
    July 28, 2010 5:25 pm

    This could very easily be portrayed as a “Norman Rockwell” type of painting, but instead the photograph captured the essense of what otherwise could be a painting called “Suburban Street”. The subtle tans and grays with a few splashes of yellow and green reveal a simple yet telling story of a family living in a newer suburban community full of hope for their future and perhaps a better life from where they came from. The community nestled against the backdrop of the barren mountains seems protected from what lies beyond. The beauty of art lies within the eyes of the beholder much like the black and white photos by Ansel Adams. Gia, your article reminds me that we do often take for granted our surroundings which if we look closer reveal a simple beauty and effectively “living art”. On a recent walk in Vasquez Rocks with my Mom (visiting of yes…New Jersey), while looking down I saw the tiniest purple desert flowers (purple happens to be my favorite color) so maybe that’s why I noticed them, sparkling pebbles which were glistening by the rays of the sun, broken colored glass pieces, and along with the backdrop of the slanted rocks demonstrated a prehistoric-like place only fifteen minutes from our surburban home. My Mom commented that this was the most unusual place that she had ever seen and she hated to leave it. She even rock climbed at 87 years old and connected with the Earth in such an amazing setting. We went a little further down the road inside of the park and came upon a movie set which could have been portrayed in Afghanistan or Iraq or some other war torn country. This in itself was art projected against the natural backdrop of the beautiful Vasquez Rocks. I don’t know about you, but living in suburbs of the Santa Clarita Valley which is full of history has made me realize that art is all around us…..we just have to open our eyes and take notice. I will be paying more attention!

  2. July 30, 2010 11:37 am

    I firmly believe suburbia is the furthest part in the history of american life. Some people believe it ends with the city, but I really think it ends with the suburbs. The need for something more private but unwilling to give up the sense of community. Wanting to create something with more personality and individuality but unable to give up the efficiency of cookie cutter, factory-churned homes.

  3. John permalink
    August 4, 2010 9:04 am

    You’ve used a lot of words to say very little. You felt conflicted and felt “something” and had “questions”–but you don’t articulate what that “something” is, nor what those “questions” are, and that’s the most interesting part. More please.

  4. Andy permalink
    August 4, 2010 10:24 am

    Suburbia is an extremely important component of contemporary American (and abroad) society, and for that reason it is the focus of various movements in contemporary art (New Topographics — Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Robert Adams, etc. — and now a second wave is starting to appear — Steven B. Smith, Matthew Moore, and more).

    Anyways, I hope the art makes you feel good. I consider myself incredibly lucky to grow up in this time and place, and be apart of and witness that important component of American society. Don’t take the suburbs for granted.

    The thing I like about art about the suburbs is that it is generally much more varied than what I usually hear or learn about the suburbs from other sources (even this blog, for example), which cast the suburbs in a pretty negative light, or that reinforce the ‘suburban myth.’ Art tends to look at the suburbs and say ‘okay…so we know what the suburbs are, and it is what it is…but what makes it so interesting?’ and that’s why a lot of art about the suburbs is so fascinating.


  1. August 4, 2010 – Daily Brief |

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