In 1962, Malvina Reynolds wrote the song "Little Boxes" to condemn the conformity of the suburbs, where the houses and people "all look just the same." Reynolds couldn't know that several decades later, urban sprawl would produce a region beyond the suburbs called exurbia, largely driven by the American dream of home ownership. One wonders what kind of song she'd have written in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis.
The Fe Arts Gallery exhibition Homebound, curated by Felicia Feaster, examines the idea of home in America today. It asks whether the home still symbolizes comfort, hope and refuge. It also explores images of alienation and isolation, particularly in the suburbs. But the strongest and most interesting pieces are those in which a house is portrayed as a character in an existential drama beyond its control.
The best of these are Nate Kamp's small and intimate prints showing the individual characteristics of specific houses against a stark white background. Bearing titles like "Conveniently Arranged" and "Dignified and Imposing," his small, delicate images underscore the way a house becomes a commodity rather than a site of emotion and memory. His three larger woodcuts of suburban-looking homes speak to our present economic climate: Despite their manicured lawns and two-car garages, these homes are clearly unoccupied, deserted.
Abandoned homes are also the subject of Seth Clark's mixed-media collages. Notwithstanding their dilapidation, these forlorn houses retain some individual character and personal history. Neglected, they struggle to maintain their dignity. So too does the diminutive house with a bright-red door in Katie Sussman's "A Cautionary Tale." This sweet little country house is intact, yet imperiled by the industrial complex looming behind it.
The emotional impact of these works, however, is not sustained throughout, making the exhibition's other work seem overly didactic. Works by Meg Aubrey and Patrick Heagney confront the false promises of suburbia and its vaguely menacing landscapes, while Anna Watson and Mary Turnipseed critique the way our increasingly digitized lives can make us feel more alone. While these criticisms no doubt have merit, they take the conversation in a more academic, less emotionally engaging, direction.
Given Fe's size limitations, this exhibition's theme is ambitious. Nonetheless, it succeeds in making us reconsider the allure of home ownership as a defining element of the American Dream.
HOMEBOUND continues through June 11. Fe Arts Gallery, 4102 Butler St., Lawrenceville. 412-254-4038 or www.fegallery.org