The Press-Enterprise

February 9th, 2003

Amid the asphalt, suburbs find green

Devorah L. Knaff

We forget, all too often, the effect of the world aroudn us — how different our lives would be if we lived in places that were structured differently.

The artists in the current UCR Sweeney Art Gallery exhibit “Sprawl: new suburban landscapes” awaken that awareness.

The works in the show are based on the traditional landscape paintings as practiced from about the 16th century through the 19th, with lovely, vast spaces full of nature’s calm beauty.

They were meant to inspire and intimidate. We were supposed to understand when looking at these landscapes that we were much less important and powerful than the world that we were observing.

But this show looks at a world that is very much diminished. Suburbia is, after all, a world in which nature has been tamed. Lawns are a very tame form of nature indeed–weeded, mown and edged, brought under the strictest form of control. ANd sometimes quite lovely. Anyone who has ever rolled across a freshly mown lawn and stopped just short of a flower bed knows the attraction of a velvety lawn.

That appreciation for the suburban landscape is what sets these artists apart in their commentary. It is an appreciation laced with irony and undercut by criticism.

But it is a sophisticated commentary, one that understands that suburbs are both attractive and repellent.

There is the voice of experience about these works, the voice of someone who as a child reveled int eh quiet gardens of a suburb and has only lately come to see their peril.

The artists in the show–Tom LaDuke, Jean Lowe, Gregory Martin, Nikko Mueller and Marc Trujillo–range widely in style, but each work is united in its attention to detail, making them compelling and also evoking the suburban home and garden. And yet within this overall similarity there are a range of ideas. For example, Mueller’s “Untitled (Exit 56),” presents us with an essentially cartographic view of the suburbs. This is the world of the freeway-close housing tract as seen from the air, all cleanly delineated grids and exit ramps.

But this world, as Mueller presents it to us, is strikingly gray. The gray of asphalt–not the green of lawns or even the sienna of California summer grass. This is a world in which the overriding verdancy of nature has been transformed into anthracite gray.

We could well be inside of a machine rather than overlooking the natural world, and indeed Mueller’s precise but semi-abstract view of the world resembles a circuit board as much as it does a view of a freeway system.

Mueller suggests–although the point is made quite subtly–that in seeking to flee the grayness of the city we have failed in fact to escape its mechanized existence.

Jean Lowe’s paintings, such as “Rancho Dorado, 2000” are the most closely allied in this show with the 18th- and 19th-century landscape traditions that each of the artists in the show is playing with.

Her delicately painted expanses of tract houses in San Diego County are replete with the kind of grand sweep of landscape that was used in the 19th century to give much of the nation its first views of Yosemite and Yellowstone. There is the same run of hills that goes on forever, the golden light, the same sense of humanity put in its place, made small and insignificant against the vast beauty of the natural world.

But of course, this is not Yosemite but the environs of Escondido, a landscape both less grand in its original state and far more compromised. But Lowe’s work is at least to some extent a parody of the landscape tradition that she is acknowledging.

Instead of the massive, ornately carved gold frame that we would expect to see on a “real” landscape painting of this genre we have a gold frame painted directly on the canvas, which is then nailed directly to the wall.

This is the antithesis of the care with which a painting of the care with which a painting of the California hills of 100 years would have been treated, reflecting what has been lost in the meantime. But it also reflects as well our continuing desire to lose ourselves in nature, even if all we have is a pocket lawn and a border of tulips.

“Sprawl: new suburban landscapes”. When: 11am-4pm Tuesdays through Saturdays. Where: UCR Sweeney Art Gallery. Admission: Free. Information: (909) 787-3755. On the Internet: