By Wickham Boyle
The suburbs hold a nearly mystical sway. For some, a utopian promise combining country freedom and proximity to city livelihood. For others, a cookie-cutter nightmare where individuality is subsumed to the norm.
Say what you will, few are indifferent about the environs that surround New York City.
After the advent of 911, many Downtowners decamped to the “burbs.” They fled the scene of the crime for leafy streets, single family homes and to neighbors, perhaps, who looked more like them.
There is an art show, a group exhibition of some of the finest modern painters, at DFN Gallery on Franklin Street, a space that stayed put in Tribeca after 911. It now has an extraordinary show called, “The Burbs: The influence of suburban iconography on pictorial art.”
This show is curated by Rick Davidman who is also a board member of the Tribeca Organization, a group founded after 9/11 to revitalize Downtown. This show has enough grit, verve and diversity to revitalize many a viewer’s soul and artistic point of view.
The DFN Gallery is housed in the former RIVERUN, the bar and burger joint much beloved by old time Tribeca residents, that was named after the first words in James Joyce’s epic Novel, “Finnegan’s Wake.” It is now a super clean, spare gallery and a perfect site for mounting an exhibition querying the suburban landscape.
This show includes works by over fifty artists including many icons: David Hockney, Martin Mull, Eric Fischl, Fairfield Porter, Cindy Sherman, Edward Hopper, Vincent Desiderio and Julie Heffernan. The works range in price, like suburban dwellings, from a modest $335 for an ink on vellum to $45,000 for Charles Burchfield’s 18×22 inch 1917 watercolor entitled “Spring Surprise of Winter Rye.”
The show is varied. You can see the idyllic beauty of a swimming pool evinced by the emblematic David Hockney drawing. Or witness the fear the suburbs might have visited on our mothers whose nascent hopes of careers were thwarted by being shuttled to a place where their lives were only about serving the commuting father and raising children.
This trapped feeling is depicted by Laurie Simmons’ photographic work entitled, “Lying Objects,” showing a woman’s full size legs peaking out from a model house, a modern Wicked Witch of the West who is crushed by Dorothy’s house.
There are depictions of miniature golf, tract homes, sports and shaded streets brimming with conflict.
Vincent Desiderio’s large oil called “Savant,” is an autobiographical portrait that includes his father, himself and his son. His son, who was gravely injured – either at birth or in an operation he had while an infant – lies slack jawed at his side with a tank of oxygen nearby. The picture is terrifying in content and glorious in execution.
One of my favorites, by Bob Yarber, a pastel on black paper with nearly phosphorescent chalk, that hints at black light and spoofs drawings on velvet. Yarber takes a shot at that fine line between horror and fun that I saw so often in the burbs. In Yaber’s drawing, a mother in a bikini takes a hose to two children who appear to be watching endless TV. The hose scatters the children and family pet with a ghostly light while mom shoots water into her too clean living room.
It reminded me of a neighbor, Mr. Hoffman, a father to nine kids, who seemed to be in a constant war with his wife and the rest of us. One time he took the garden hose and sprayed it into the kitchen to disperse his children. At the time, I screamed with glee, thinking it was such a wild idea. But after the high jinx, I remember how sad Mrs. Hoffman looked as she mopped all that water out of the kitchen and Mr. Hoffman sped away in his new Buick to his lot where he sold cars to other fathers.
The suburbs does hold that yin and yang of mindless summer childhood and clanging realizations of the price of such freedom. The show, the Burbs, brings to Tribeca another way to evaluate our choices and revel in the work of some many remarkable post-world war artists.