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Gregory Crewdson: Making multiple myths in suburbian settings

Exhibit: Gregory Crewdson at Site Santa Fe — Feb. 10 through May 27, 2001.

Brooklyn-born Gregory Crewdson, in selections from two bodies of work, depicts a strange confluence of nature, suburbia and humanity by creating fantasy scenarios that speak to the underlying forces of modern American life. What drives the work’s relevance is the underlying element of absurdity in its portrayals of our conventions.

Crewdon, 38, who has taught at the Yale University photography department since 1993, received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1992. A single photograph sometimes takes the artist a week to create, with sets built in Lee, Mass., that take on the elaborate production values of a Hollywood film.

'Gregory Crewdson' by Gregory CrewdsonIn one of 14 images from the “Twilight” series (1998-1999), neighbors with adjoining back yards appear to be collaborating on a monument to the trappings of a middle-class existence — a pile of possessions comprising a power lawnmower, a piece of picket fence, a bicycle wheel, a stereo, a wall clock, a plastic swan, a mattress, a box of S.O.S laundry detergent. It’s as if the very accoutrements of these people’s lives are both the mechanisms of a subtle oppression and also the cries for help, perhaps not unlike the quiet desperation from such films as American Beauty.

A girl in a floral-print top wears grass clippings on her body as she casts a blank stare out of a living room window to the world beyond the flower box just outside her reach. In the girl there is still hope, though it also appears that she may be on a dead-end path toward the mirage of the American Dream.

'Gregory Crewdson' by Martin HochleitnerSimilarly, a man stands on the front lawn of his burning home, a red plastic gas can beside him, and he watches flames devour, and maybe cleanse, the building’s interior. Meanwhile, parked at the curb is a brown station wagon, its inside stuffed with board games and the roof stacked with toys. Children look on, impatiently, from inside the car. Where they will go remains to be seen.

An escapism fantasy, and perhaps a scene born of repressed desires, this theme echoes throughout Crewdson’s work:

  • In a selection from the black-and-white “hover” series (1996-1997), a man lays sod on the asphalt in front of his home, providing water via a sprinkler, as his neighbors look on, no one seemingly interested in pointing out the futility of his actions. (Is the viewer the star-crossed gardener or the audience?)
  • A man in a dirty T-shirt rips up the sod in place of where the living room carpet would lie, unearthing a light from a hole in the floorboards below. Cigarette butts, of the discount GPC variety, are strewn around him, and an electric organ in the background goes unplayed.

These are dark images, to be sure, but they are not without a sense of irony. Nor do they lack the humor that allows a viewer to witness one’s self within these contexts.

'Twilight' by Gregory CrewdsonA pregnant woman stands in her underwear on the lawn of a suburban street at night. Behind her stand two mailboxes: one black, one white; one open, one closed; signifying, perhaps, the roads taken and not taken. Yet aside from the surrealism of the woman’s presence, the image alludes to the viewer/voyeur by taking the point of view of a neighbor looking through a window framed by a flower box and white drapes that serve as theater curtains; we don’t have to look, but we await to see what tragedy or comedy will ensue.

But maybe, just maybe, what happens next is up to us. Whether we intercede or we see this path in our own lives will round out the plot and provide the epilogue.