Saturday, April 23, 2005

Down and out in suburbia

The bleak and brooding side of American suburbia was explored today in 14 panoramic, über-theatrical and colour-drenched photographs by Gregory Crewdson at the White Cube gallery:

Take one: A scratched and sodden woman with knees encrusted with mud sits alone on the bed with the remains of a rose bush in her hands. Behind her lies the long trail of thorns, petals, roots and dirt on the carpet.

Take two: A man and woman lay post-coitally naked on a dirty mattress in a squalid garden littered with debris, oblivious to both their immediate surroundings and the windows of the house overlooking them next door.

Take three: A mother and son sit inert at a table, not looking at one another. Their untouched dinner includes a half-cooked roast leaking blood. There are upturned bottles of pills on the dresser and an undrunk glass of liquour and ice on the kitchen counter.

Take four: A woman sits on the passenger side of a car that is idling at the traffic lights of a deserted crossroads, gazing absently at the empty driver's seat beside her.

Crewdson's work presents a very different portrait from the pared-down and spare vernacular America of Diane Arbus, Edward Hopper or Stephen Shore. Crewdson's photos are intensely theatrical, technicolour dramas encrusted with finely-delineated detail.

We can only speculate what went on in each of his photos, for it is as if the camera lens has caught the action mid-scene. You would not be mistaken for wondering if these are staged film sets: each has been produced on a soundstage and Crewdson collaborates with a roster of actors, lighting crews, art directors, set dressers, grips, gaffers, and hair and makeup artists.

If the scenes are short on context and plot, they are long on cinematic atmosphere: deserted main streets, damp forests, overgrown railroad tracks, misty skies, shabby carpets, dripping blood, vacant faces, dimly-lit motel rooms.

Most of the scenes suffer from such an overload of detail that at times my imagination disengaged. Was it really necessary, for example, to scatter lots of props to convince us that the bleeding, hunched, glum woman in front of us is truly unhappy: an over-flowing ashtray, a discarded pair of stockings, tranquillisers and slimming pills strewn across a table?

Moreover, the dark side of American suburbia is a tediously over-worked concept these days. From Twin Peaks through American Beauty to Desperate Housewives, murder-madness-sex-and-death-in-the-'burbs is familiar cultural territory for most of us.

Despite these misgivings, I found the overall effect to be unsettling, intriguing, and technically mesmerising.

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