American Pastoral (Gagosian, WC1)

My interest in American history and culture is what brought me to American Pastoral at Gagosian. Growing up in the early 21st century with American television programmes, the internet and subsequently platforms such as YouTube, The Land of Opportunity seemed so significant and glamorous, yet so distant and inaccessible which I’m sure only magnified its lure on my younger self. This enticement has since hugely faded and today I would describe myself as intrigued instead of infatuated. I was given the groundwork on the concept of the American Dream while reading John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ during secondary school - this group show borrows its title from another fictional story, Philip Roth’s 1997 novel where the protagonist, 'Swede', who is “a devoted family man and the prosperous inheritor of his father's glove factory comes of age in thriving, triumphant post-war America, and then, one day in 1968, Swede's beautiful American luck deserts him” [1]. This theme of diminishing prosperity is intentionally timely; the parallels in America today cannot be ignored. Much like Swede, Donald Trump is the inheritor of his father’s business and, as the show opens, Trump is the third President at trial facing impeachment. The tension between surface-level facades and underlying socio-political pressures sets the foundation for the show. 

Notions of family life are explored in the photograph ‘A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y.’ (1968) by Diane Arbus. This is an image which truly unravels before my eyes and lends itself to critical analysis. At once, nothing seems unusual - a typical suburban family are relaxing in their lawn. Upon further inspection, the excessively spacious garden becomes increasingly apparent and thus it is fair to assume that this is a prosperous household. As per the American Dream, this couple have worked hard and they are now free to indulge in the fruits of their labour; however, the couple are not playing with their child and they do not look particularly happy. Their bodies are rigid, they might even appear tense and there is arguably an unnatural aura within this photo. The medium of photography is prevalent throughout this show due to its humble ability to freeze history for observation, but more so for its power to manipulate reality. One of Cindy Sherman’s photographs sits on the opposite side of this wall which curatorially makes sense as Sherman’s work is entirely staged. In the photograph by Arbus, I have touched on the ostentatious and superficial aspect of American culture - Sherman combines this with photography’s capacity to produce artificial representations in her self-portraits as different persona’s.

In the same room as Sherman is Taryn Simon’s ‘Exploding Warhead, Test Area C-80C, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida’ (2007), which depicts a ball of flames reminiscent of an archetypical Hollywood action film by director Michael Bay, for example. The image is bright and vibrant, it is a photograph that visually demands attention – it bears a desire to be heard like a crying child. Weeks before the exhibitions opening, President Trump controversially authorized a drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport which targeted and killed an Iranian major general, naturally causing headlines and hysteria around the world. America’s relationship with flamboyant and loud explosions can be traced back to July 4th, 1776 when congress declared independence from the British monarchy; it remains a date still celebrated through the use of fireworks. Independence is key to the American individual, it is fundamental in the American Dream as everyone desires self-sufficiency and their own space.

Sally Mann depicts America using a more subtle approach in her photographic series ‘Deep South’, a title which refers to the photographer’s hometown, Virginia. Mann uses the wet-plate collodion technique, a laborious process which would necessitate a makeshift darkroom wherever she goes. The convoluted nature of such method means it is prone to accident. This actually works in Mann’s favour as she perceptibly embraces any scratch or distortion, presumably in order to enhance the melancholic quality of her images. This photograph in particular depicts a small, isolated house which reminds me of Blanche DuBois, a character from the play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947) by Tennessee Williams. Post-war America created a division between the American South's upper class and the working class who returned as war heroes. Blanche, who is originally from Mississippi (near Virginia), represents the typical Southern belle, an affluent young lady who is expected to marry a wealthy, respectable man. During the play, Blanche is progressively torn apart by a working-class character named Stanley as she refuses to adapt to contemporary America. The play concludes in Blanche’s admission to a psychiatric hospital due to her lack of grip on reality. In the film, Stanley and his animalistic characteristics are portrayed by Marlon Brando, a vivacious and overbearing presence that sporadically explodes, returning to Taryn Simon’s ‘Exploding Warhead’ photograph. Blanche’s nostalgia for old America is captured beautifully in Mann’s series, while Stanley’s progressive attitude could be symbolized in the iconography of white-picket fences which came to represent the desirable middle-class suburban life that people sought after the war.

The shows curation encompasses the white-picket fence in a photograph by Florida-born Roe Ethridge, titled ‘Picket Fence’ (2017), which bares great resemblance to the opening of David Lynch’s film ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986). Perhaps this image could single-handedly be the most comprehensive visual representation of the American Dream – the rose and the fence are intertwined; the rose being a universal symbol of love while the fence signifies safety, both physically and financially. The white paint adds to these factors with connotations of purity and innocence. Below this work lays Cady Noland’s ‘Trashed Mailbox’ (1989), another distinctive American iconography. It is here we begin to see juxtaposing representations, a curatorial decision which reminds us of the show’s impetus; tensions between the fictional American Dream and life’s reality.

Richard Prince’s photograph ‘Untitled (Cowboy)’ (1994), which sits in the same corner as Ethridge’s ‘Picket Fence’, deals with the notion of reality in regard to the American Dream (the cowboy being another distinguishing American icon). Before I discuss this, the viewer must understand that Prince’s work is a photograph of a pre-existing photograph. While working at Time Magazine, the artist would re-photograph advertisements by the cigarette brand Marlboro, sometimes cropping and blurring, eventually presenting them as his own works. In American history, the cowboy is arguably a macho myth avidly propelled by movies, books and advertisements. Surely cowboys existed, but to the extent of their media representation is uncertain; “like many of the nation's perceptions about the West, some of its most common notions about the American cowboy are myths. But if myths survive long enough, some acquire a life of their own.” [2]. By reproducing the ad and removing the brands text, Prince introduces a layer of discussion surrounding clichés and authenticities, evocative of ideas discussed in Jean Baudrillard’s book ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ (1981), which argues that “Simulacra - in the era of television - are copies of things that no longer have an original (or never had one to begin with)” [3]. The contemporary cowboy is a snowball of representations. In light of this definition, we can observe the cowboy as a myth and photography’s role in society as something that not only documents reality but produces fiction.

The role of the cowboy bears similarities with many Hollywood celebrities who are often blank canvases constructed and manipulated by the media to fit a role and accommodate the public fantasy’s – Marilyn Monroe springs to mind, who famously struggled with the pressure of fame. Robert Frank conveys this in his photograph ‘Movie Premiere’ (1959), which I believe would fit well in this curation, by breaking conventional rules of photography and pulling his subject out of focus in order to accentuate the crowd behind the her, therefore rendering the star’s face indistinguishable and ultimately irrelevant.

This exhibition successfully uses ideas of representation and iconography in order to tread a fine line between truth and reality, both in art and life, an issue relevant today in the era of media construction and – to use a term popularized by Trump – ‘fake news’.

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