Art on the Fast Tract

Varied interpretations of suburban sprawl are explored in a new exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art.

If you think nothing good has ever come out of the suburbs, consider the history of art and literature about suburbia—from John Cheever to Joel Sternfeld, American artists have found inspiration in the aesthetic car wreck of post-urban life. They may find it gruesome, but they just can’t look away. Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl, an exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, collects 30 works exploring sprawl and development in California. Though none of them can be said to celebrate the subdivision, these paintings, photographs, and installations make it clear that the changing landscape has provided fertile ground for artmaking.

The emergence of suburban narratives in art coincided with the rise of postmodernism, and there is a cool, ironic eye to many of these works. Photography, in particular, lends a deadpan objectivity that doesn’t need to do more than cast its dispassionate eye on row after row of tract-house rooflines (Robert Isaacs’ Ticky Tacky Houses of Daly City, from 1968) or a water tower looming ominously above a ranch house, like a less-than-benevolent Big Brother (Richard Meisinger Jr.’s 1989 Still Life with Water Tank). Todd Hido ratchets up this tension to a level of pure creepiness. In an untitled work from his 1999 Outskirts series, the lighted windows of cheap road-side homes loom behind a highway guardrail. These are the places you pass at night, wondering who would choose to live there, or whether it was really a choice.

Sometimes a warmer eye only increases the cynicism. In Darlene Campbell’s oil-on-wood painting IMBY (In My Backyard), from 2001, pink clouds and golden light cast a classical pastoral eye on a contemporary landscape: a quarry-like excavation clears a wooded hillside in preparation for construction. On the ridge above, wooden frames are already going up. Campbell seems to be asking, With so many things that we won’t allow in our backyards, why this?

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Amir Zaki’s unsettling untitled photograph from 2004 shows two cliff-side houses from below. With a scrim of typical California scrub trees in the foreground, the stilts that hold up the houses are obscured—they hover gently above the ground. In a corner of the sky, a plane passes. The houses, too, seem about to take off, untethered, impermanent, and possibly even unsafe. It’s a good metaphor for a recurring theme of the show: how quickly and cheaply California’s suburban landscape has developed. Can it be long before these ticky tacky houses give way to something else—and what might that possibly be?

Suburban Escape: The Art of California Sprawl runs through March 4, 2007.

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