Nightmare Under a Dreamy Sky

Larry Sultan, Empty Pool, 1991, from Suburban Escape: The Art of the California Sprawl

We're all supposed to hate suburbia now, unless we work for The Irvine Company or TheOrange County Register or, perhaps, Fluor. Yet even as it seethes, Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl, a book of works seen in the current same-named San Jose Museum of Art exhibition, finds a ruinous beauty in the sterile sameness so many of us call home. Let's ask a dead lady what she thinks.

"When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense," the late author Jane Jacobs grumped in her essential 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities. "Because this is so, there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art." Ann M. Wolfe, who curated the show and authored Suburban Escape, disagrees, as a child of suburbia—who's slept next door to the enemy—might. She writes of watching her family's orchard bulldozed eight years ago for subdivisions, yet finds in this show and book a terrible, steely gleam to hide—partially—the mind-numbing, soul-crushing duplication of where we live.

That's because there aren't any people around to screw things up with their lawn furniture, dirty cars and flags—except in a few pieces where there are. And when people appear in this book, they're either dwarfed by the landscape or oblivious. A classic example is Restricted Housing Tract, Los Angeles, CA. 1950, a distant, sepia photo of an African American man caught on the sidewalk of a new subdivision—gazing up at a sign nearly twice his height. It trumpets the news "This tract is exclusive and restricted"; it doesn't have to add a comma and the word boy. You see parts of white stucco houses, the back of a car, a bare dirt lawn and the tiny black man, every bit as anonymous as the photographer.

Bill Owens has an excellent black-and-white photograph, This Is Our Second Annual Fourth of July Block Party . . ., and beneath his camera's ladder-lifted gaze, homeowners on a little bubble of a cul-de-sac are frozen: talking, eating, drinking—curiously subdued. The girls' long, center-parted hair and two bikes with banana seats make it the '70s. It's eerie how little emotion they show. Quaaludes? Owens is a few feet away, but it's as if he watches them under glass.

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Similarly, Martin Mull's 1940s-redux triptych of oils, The Contemplation of Assets II,finds three washed-out city dwellers—two women in skirts, a plaid-shirted man—paused, heavy-lidded, as they gaze into the abyss. The man grins, but you feel nothing. It's a pretty scene of postwar bliss, but—a void.

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Like parts of Orange County, which, finally, we get to three-quarters of the way through the book. There is the dead zone-ish Laurie Brown photograph of Weir Canyon, Anaheim,which we see after Weir Canyon was plowed under for homes, sending herds of coyotes packing. Brown finds it replaced with rows of mashed-together, two-story stucco boxes roofed in thick shingles and Spanish tile—a Poltergeist situation for sure, had that not been filmed in Agoura Hills. Look closely and you can almost see the people with bright white teeth who live there.

Painter Darlene Campbell was inspired by what's left of our rolling foothills to paint the gorgeous plein air-style (I.M.B.Y.) In My Back Yard.Appropriately, it's a view of denuded hills with pyramid-roofed houses partly built—a nightmare under a dreamy sky. It's the only other overtly local scene—but so much here looks like Orange County. Costa Mesa's own Jeff Gillette blurts out an excellent acrylic, Destroyed Houses, showing how our places might look if they were partially torn-down. (Like in Anaheim Hills—or Bluebird Canyon.) Ansel Adams weighs in with Housing Development San Bruno Mountains, San Francisco, CA and it looks just like the zig-zaggy tracts going up around Irvine now. And Robert Isaacs serves up two gloriously black-and-white 1968 photos of snaky Daly City housing tracts that should remind you of Laguna Niguel (or anywhere one can peer into another's bathroom without a long lens).

If you have a heart.


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