Art: Wednesday, May 02, 2002
American Beauty

Arlington Museum of Art finds the sparkle in sprawl.


Now’s as good a time as any to talk about sprawl. But don’t mention anything about how farmland is being claimed by unmitigated housing development at a rate of 1.2 million acres per year. Or that the infrastructures of many cities are becoming worn beyond repair. Or that nearly every major metropolitan region, including Fort Worth and Dallas, is acquiescing to average American families trying to find clean, safe places to live — and to the whims of developers, with their promises of making local economies “competitive” by spurring development. What we can talk about is sprawl as the meta-narrative of works of art: from John Updike’s iconic Brewer, Pa., to Bill Owen’s Suburbia to the town in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty to a current exhibition at the Arlington Museum of Art.

It makes perfect sense for the AMA to now contemplate the “beauty” of urban planning: A modest renovation of the museum’s 47-year-old building is on the boards, while Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum has just wrapped up an exhibition that explored similar themes of architecture and urban planning. Now that the AMA has your undivided attention, Sprawl: Aspects of Human Agency in the Landscape will run through June 15; an adjunct show, Architects as Artists, in the museum’s mezzanine space, will end May 11.

The shows aren’t as disconnected as you might think. A dirty little secret in the architecture community is that lots of architects are making beaucoup bucks designing those McMansions you see sprouting up like kudzu in the ’burbs. (And you thought architects were idealistic — ha!) But don’t expect a lot of proselytizing at the AMA; the artists in Sprawl thankfully eschew the outright political for the aesthetically sublime. The few highlights in each handsome exhibit are worth the 15-minute ride to A-town.

Environmentalists or anti-sprawl activists looking for an artistic endorsement of their ideas need not make a visit. The three artists, all from Texas, whose works make up Sprawl, mostly concern themselves with figuring out how to reflect the natural environment that’s being transformed beneath their feet. They don’t come right out and say that sprawl provides a beautiful tableau from which an artist can draw honest inspiration, but they hint at it. And that’s enough. Artists are supposed to tweak conventional wisdom, like the kind that says “sprawl is bad” — not uphold it. Kudos to Sprawl’s curator, Sara-Jayne Parsons, for her smart choices.

Dornith Doherty, for one, would have you believe that the idea of sprawl could just be a static, languid dream. Her few large photos on view here present a colorful view of the infinite. Close-up images of splayed flowers, from stem to bud, floating on clear liquid, reduce the world for you to a single point, their locations within the picture frames. These refulgent flowers are utterly enthralling. In the same way that Robert Frost saw “god” in a single spider’s web, Doherty reveres her physically delicate subjects. The traditional, bucolic landscape also, under Doherty’s spell, becomes a fuzzy, hazy throwaway of a family photograph taken accidentally while cruising the countryside in a car. As with a lot of landscape images, there are no beginnings and no ends to her works such as “Bay of Nicaya” or “Night Drive.” They — in the perfect, sprawl-less world of the photographer’s aperture — roll on forever.

The rest of the show is kind of dull, an afternoon in front of the tube. Gary Retherford’s process of taking what appear to be ordinary household objects and covering them with leaves strikes a single note that, while humorous, doesn’t resonate after you’ve left the museum. And Sally Packard’s “wigs” — large swaths of fabric bunched up and displayed on mannequin heads — offer little variation on the theme of bourgeois self-indulgence.

A variation on the old saying, “Don’t quit your day job,” applies to each architect-as-artist on exhibit in the other show in Arlington: Rearranged, the saying should now read, “Don’t stray too far from your day job when making Art.” Judging by what’s on display, the closer an architect sticks to design technique, the more successful he seems to be at iterating his pleasure-for-pleasure’s-sake ideas.

Richard B. Ferrier’s cold and crafty “watercolor drawings” suggest renderings for futuristic Usonian houses. They’re simply fascinating. All the action is concentrated, as on typical renderings of homes, along the bottom of the paper; the “sky” remains its natural, papery white. Rectangles and squares of all sizes, drawn with precision, overlap each other in place of “windows” or “bricks.” Inside nearly every geometric shape, ambivalent colors (not too sure if they want to be, say, hunter green or emerald, maroon or magenta) make the pictures glow. Small photographic images of naked women in repose and of bodies of water inserted into “Windows and Fragments: The Picturesque” give the viewer the sensation of seeing inside and outside the “house” at the same time — inside to its inhabitants, outside to its surroundings. Nakedness notwithstanding, it’s nearly impossible to turn away from these brilliant, dazzling pieces of Art.

Christopher DiMarco also uses design technique to impressive ends. His sculptural works would make perfect ceremonial paraphernalia — if only they weren’t so damn striking and completely impractical as functional objects. Tastefully conservative and constructed of, among other materials, mahogany, Texas cream limestone, redwood, and Indiana limestone, they’d sit well in any corporation’s lobby or collector’s home. And Etty Horowitz’s wire sculptures sing. “Funny Side Up” looks like a bra on a tornado. A funnel of string and wire and transparent black fabric spirals down from the ceiling into a bosom of billowy white lace near the floor. The other two architects-as-artists on exhibit here, Michael Corman and Reynaldo Thompson, diverge from design technique with their works on canvas and end up looking lost. Obviously intoxicated by color, they let their promising themes on geometric shapes and human anatomy drown in the plangent noise. At least they weren’t working with Stucco gray.

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