Have we outgrown it?
by Stephanie Douglass
For a good many of us, the American Dream is a house. It's the very real house that we own, or once lived in, or imagine moving into someday. Thus, it's fitting that several pieces in Gallery Project's current exhibit, American Dream, use images of houses to explore our national ethos, the belief that our country affords everyone the opportunity to live rich, full lives. For example, there's Bloomington, Indiana, artist David Katz's small sculpture of a vertical slice of a house which contains a red vermiform organism pushing against its ceiling. The work is tellingly titled Structural Confinement, which led me to think it referred to uniquely American systems that maintain inequalities across race and class. Other works made me wonder if, likewise, America has outgrown its dream.
One aim of the exhibit is to investigate the reality obscured by the dream's glimmer. I was reminded of one reality, heedless materialism, while looking at the installation Manufactured Longing: Cookie Cutter Dreams, an elaborate, silvery pile of house-shaped cookie cutters created by Gallery Project co-director Gloria Pritschet. Like Pritschet, Jesse Howell of Marshall also explores the substance of the dream, but to its plain and frugal end, in a collection of life-size furniture made of embossed paper. There are only the essentials: a dresser, a rug, a bed topped by a rumpled cover, a door, and a wall with a window, which appear to be pressings of Art Van or IKEA counterparts.
Two of my favorite works were photographs that skillfully capture the tension between the dream and reality. In Royal Oak photographer Eric Smith's Waldorf Astoria, my gaze was torn between an old man drowsing in a chair and a headless mannequin modeling a wedding dress. Juxtapositions of light, material, and surface abound. There's also an untitled print by the Houston-based husband-and-wife duo Hillerbrand+Magsamen in which a young boy stands atop a tricycle in the midst of a sea of toys. He wears a muddled superhero's outfit
and looks, not at the viewer, but away from the camera, toward a source of light. The tone could be either serious or amusing: the boy hears a world calling out to be saved, or he hears his mom telling him to clean his room.
In addition to illuminating and confronting the reality behind the American Dream, the exhibit features works that reimagine the ideal. Cleveland artist Dana Depew's engaging and thrifty Hillbilly Air-Conditioning is a breezy one-room shack made of wooden pallets, cooled by fans set into its walls, and decorated with Ohio license plates. There's also Urban Pioneer, Detroit, Daniel Farnum's photograph of a flannel-clad young man complemented by the resourcefulness with which his surroundings are built. These two pieces refresh the dream even as they remind us of the ingenuity and evidence of hard work that are fundamental to it.
Hurry! This worthwhile exhibit ends on March 4.
[Originally published in March, 2012.]