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Suburbia's possibilities, along with its flaws, are explored in a new show at the Carnegie. 

click to enlarge Do you want fries with that? Lee Stoetzel's "McMansion 2" is made primarily out of ground beef and cheese.
  • Do you want fries with that? Lee Stoetzel's "McMansion 2" is made primarily out of ground beef and cheese.

Suburbia has a way of stifling critical thought, perhaps many ways. If you're not dumbfounded by the endless asphalt desert of the Wal-Mart parking lot, then maybe the wage-pummeling cornucopia of cheap plastic goods will leave you speechless. If the herd of gas-guzzling multi-ton SUVs doesn't short-circuit your common sense in a world of peak oil -- mmm, cupholders -- then maybe a nutrition-free roadside meal will clog the arteries of rationality once and for all. Thank God It's Fried.

Angrier critics may insist that such unrelenting physical and cognitive assaults will actually make you stupid, but the Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes exhibition at the Carnegie Museum's Heinz Architectural Center argues otherwise. The show neither praises nor buries the mass culture of suburbia. Rather, it showcases architects, artists and designers who engage suburbia with variety and nuance made possible only by critical capacities that remain very much intact.

In some works, the critique is direct and unmistakable. Lee Stoetzel's "McMansion 2," a large-format photographic print, shows a scale model the artist constructed of a large suburban house, complete with triple garage, dormers and bay windows. The constituent materials, though, are mostly ground beef and cheese, with maybe a few bits of wrapping thrown in. Too ephemeral to be inhabited, too nauseating to be eaten, this is what happens when the values of consumption run unchecked.

Other artists are eager to chronicle the subtleties of human experience in such spiritually parched landscapes. The photographs in Greg Crewdson's "Dream House" series invariably portray ambiguous, yet emotionally charged, twilight scenes, as if David Lynch took still photos after looking at paintings by Edward Hopper. One untitled image shows a woman lying listlessly on a couch in front of a TV. While the daughter sleeps on the floor, apparently in front of unfinished homework, the husband stands outside glass doors in an insistently colorful flower bed looking dolefully back inside. It's quite a bit of alienation and anomie for a single room.

But all is not bleak. Like 18th-century chroniclers of Roman ruins, some of these practitioners see new sources of esthetic exploration even in the overwhelming qualities of suburbia. Adam Cvijanoc's "Same Day Delivery" engages certain aspects of classical salon painting by using representational techniques at a very large scale. And this work is a landscape of sorts, with the buildings, vehicles and objects of suburbia shown in loving detail, even if people are notably absent. The composition, though, puts the viewer below all these items, which are seen as if tossed in the air -- maybe by Dorothy Gale's tornado, but for the cheery sky-blue background. Is this the storm that will take all these things away, or the haphazard one by which we got all of this crap in the first place? Either way, Cjivanovic instructs, this landscape is best understood as an indiscriminate and disorienting flurry.

Happily, though, a number of exhibitors present constructive and instructive projects for those who want to alleviate the worst qualities of the suburbs. Perhaps the most compelling of these is Estudio Teddy Cruz's "Living Rooms on the Border." The project is a small development in San Ysidro, Calif., that places affordable senior housing, a community garden, a central market and child care in a suburban San Diego community -- affordable and community-oriented living intended to alleviate the numerous problems of cross-border migration.

Cruz takes architectural inspiration from the remarkable but frequent practice in border towns of bringing in small houses from elsewhere and raising them on stilts as the framework of a combination residential community and marketplace. The project has the handsomely composed angularity of smart design-school work. More importantly, it is predicated on social arrangements, such as extended families and connections of homes and businesses, that migrant workers construct in their own communities, rather than on imposing the stereotypical single-family home and distant workplace.

This project's presentation is particularly dense with images and text, as are most of the architectural projects in the show. They tend to require additional effort to decode some of their complexities of process and use. But these also tend to be the most instrumental and hopeful exhibits, a welcome contrast for those for whom suburbia was previously simply numbing.

 

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes continues through Jan. 18. Carnegie Museum of Art, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland. 412-622-3131 or www.cmoa.org

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