Painter depicts a frightening portrait of suburbia
By Felicia Feaster
Suburbia is slightly sinister in Atlanta artist Meg Aubrey’s paintings. It’s a desolate place; as unnervingly serene, emotionally chilly and scrubbed of people as Edward Hopper’s lonely city streets. The cul de sacs and soccer fields Aubrey depicts in bold grasshopper greens, street sign yellows and bubblegum pinks are vast, foreboding spaces, free of background detail. Hallmarks of suburbia — vast green lawns, playing fields, sidewalks — end up looking like a minimalist stage set. The real action is in Aubrey’s character studies — vivid, nuanced portraits of the queen bees of this milieu: the wives and mothers who appear to do nothing with their days but play tennis, walk dogs, sip coffee and stand on the sidelines of their children’s sporting events.
Aubrey’s solo show “Domiciled” at Whitespace Gallery posits a strange, almost science fiction world ruled by women. But women of a very certain type: eyes shrouded by sunglasses, clad in tennis or jogging outfits, businesslike in their pursuit of leisure. The sunglasses and uniforms of sportswear do a good job of masking their individuality and personality: instead they blend into a “type.” The only men in sight are the two faceless yard workers, depicted in two 8-by-6-inch portraits, whose backs are turned away from us mowing the lawn or blowing leaves. The contrast of these ladies of leisure and those stocky men who do their lawn work clearly says something about economic division, one of many social commentaries that enrich this show.
Though her primary focus in “Domiciled” is portraits of these well-off suburban women, the show is all the better for the economic malaise that has seeped into the work. Aubrey allows subtle indications of deeper troubles to emerge in “Domiciled.” In “For Sale,” she paints a long, winding suburban road marked by identical AstroTurf green front lawns, brick-encased mailboxes and row after row of blue signs plunked in every front yard. There doesn’t need to be lettering on the signs for us to know these are sale signs and that the recession has hit even these prosperous streets. In “Space Available” it is more of the same: a manicured upscale strip mall that might house an Ann Taylor and a Restoration Hardware boasts an empty parking lot and gives a strong impression that the suburban boom has gone bust.
A deeply talented painter with a unique and spooky vision of one aspect of Atlanta’s landscape, Aubrey paints what she knows. Aubrey is also a resident of an Atlanta suburb and even depicts herself in several of the works. In her 40-by-60-inch painting “Damaged,” she is seen in hyper close-up, her eyes visible behind a large pair of sunglasses. Her lip bears an ugly bloody gash. Though the wound might summon up visions of domestic violence or even plastic surgery, in real life, Aubrey’s injury was the result of a dog bite. Like the indications of economic distress, it is an image that gives “Domiciled” its darker strain, suggesting that all is definitely not right beneath these placid, manicured surfaces.
Aubrey has tried something new in this solo show. She has decorated a long row of Starbucks-style paper coffee cups with pencil drawings of suburban women, all with their eyes blocked out by tinted sunglasses. Called “Coffee Time,” the installation is a bold move and Aubrey’s effort to try a different tack. Though she may not have intended it, those cups decorated with the chilly, masked women from her paintings suggest Aubrey’s world is its own brand, as identifiable in its own right as the look and taste of Starbucks coffee.
Meg Aubrey limns an uneasy suburbia, of soccer moms and sameness, in “Domiciled”
September 12, 2012
The new paintings and drawings in Meg Aubrey’s “Domiciled,” at Whitespace through October 13, reflect an increasingly familiar social condition. Whether you talk about “liquid modernity” with sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, or “Noplaceness” as in the book of that title that ArtsATL co-founder Catherine Fox and I co-wrote with Cinqué Hicks, large parts of American life entail being “domiciled,” in the neutral legal term, in communities that could be anywhere, engaging in styles of life that are largely indistinguishable from one city to another, if only because the people who engage in them have often moved very recently from one city to another.
But Aubrey finds it curious that she lives in a place in which so much of daily life is limited to so few activities, and so much of the setting for those activities is designed to melt or meld into the background. So her wall of small figure paintings of metro Atlanta women (“Soccer Moms” and “Tennis Moms,” to use the series’ titles) focuses on the faces and costumes and dispenses with the backgrounds altogether. It comes as a shock when a soccer goal appears at the edge of the small world of “Soccer Mom #5,” instead of the minimally rendered green grass and blue sky of most of the paintings. Close study reveals different sartorial details of these similarly attired suburban individuals, but viewed en masse they seem identically dressed — almost as much as the two “Lawn Workers” in the mix, who wield a lawn mower and a leaf blower. Only the sense of style is superior.
This is a matter of keen observation as much as (if not more than) it is one of social critique. Aubrey captures postures and facial expressions as well as the particulars of clothing and the unnoticeable quality of the setting, and this careful analysis of the excessively ordinary is carried through in the two larger paintings on the opposite wall, “Before the Match” and “Match Time.” The in-between moments of conversation or pre-match concentration that are revealed in them will never be pictured in tennis magazines, unless by some unnoticed accident of photo selection.
This relentless looking at the overlooked (a phrase borrowed from art historian Norman Bryson) culminates in the immense, shocking close-up portrait “Damaged,” in which the figure faces us with a stitched-up split lip, the sort of injury one might get from a tennis ball in the face, a household accident or domestic violence. It is the first hint that all might not always be well in this world of shopping and sports competitions.
The next hint that life in the ’burbs is less securely routine than it seems is found in the completely vacant new strip mall shown in “Space Available” and the adjacent painting’s “For Sale” signs lining a street where the identical wheeled containers set out for garbage day next to the identical signage indicate that the neighborhood is fully occupied but in rapid transition. What sort of transition is left for us to guess. In good times or bad, nothing stays the same for long except the sameness.
“Queen of the Cul de Sac” is the symbolic chef d’oeuvre of the exhibition. Standing in a void defined only by cookie-cutter brick mailboxes on a dead-end street, the woman poses confidently if not arrogantly, and it is up to us to figure out what lies behind this look of at-homeness in a place that shrieks that it is anything but what we used to think of as “place.”
The shifting identity of “homeness,” like that of “placeness,” may be indicated by the contrasting audience responses to the remainder of the exhibition. According to gallerist Susan Bridges, the provocative painting of a highball-glass-carrying woman checking her mailbox in “Mid Morning” elicited reactions ranging from insult to identification. “Coffee Time,” on the other hand, seemed to delight the opening-night crowd. Aubrey has drawn small portraits of friends and neighbors on the sleeves of a series of differently sized carry-out coffee cups, and pieces with titles from “Tall Melissa” to “Venti Meg” have frequently been bought by the women portrayed.
It’s the ultimate spin on the differently generic genre that began with Renaissance portrait painting, and it makes for a lighthearted end to a show that has more than a few moments of unease in it.
Art review: Rich but overwrought “Contemporary Figure” at Swan Coach House Gallery
by Felicia Feaster
There’s so much going on in “The Contemporary Figure: New Trends in Narrative Painting and Sculpture” at Swan Coach House Gallery, such an overwhelming cacophony in the show’s exploration of the figure as an expression of interior states of mind, that viewers would be forgiven for feeling a little overstimulated. I left needing a cold compress.
Between the frenzied color schemes of Stephanie Jackson’s magical realist paintings, the visual delirium of Art Rosenbaum’s wonderful rendering of the explosive mindscape of Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens, and the thespian effusiveness of Kirsten Stingle’s New Agey ceramics of despondent girl-Pierrots, the overarching impression is of a curator with a good idea veering into the overkill zone.
Some of the artists on view become more interesting within curator Marianne Lambert’s framework. Tony Hernandez, one of Atlanta’s wonder-boy successes, looks timid next to the hysteria surrounding him. His prototypical child figure in “Message Board” is captured in a sea of empty space. The child suggests a kind of alter ego or displacement of the artist, dwarfed by an enormous unpainted universe, the dilemma of every artist creating work within a vast expanse of possibility.
Always a standout, Meg Aubrey’s work, which at times can feel emotionally remote, here looks positively fervid and as psychological as filmmaker Todd Haynes’ “Safe,” in part because of Aubrey’s piquant, mischievous point of view. In “Lost,” she has captured one of her typical sunglasses-shrouded suburban warriors clutching frou-frou gift bags, lost in a terrible sea of her own creation: a parking lot filled with SUVs. Her confusion — or perhaps it’s blind panic (her glasses reveal nothing) — is captured in the enormous frame of an SUV’s side mirror, which further mocks her plight.
Where Aubrey captures suburban angst and the existential wail of parking lots and cul-de-sacs, Terry Rowlett’s endearingly weird narrative paintings — a kind of lower-boil fabulism suggestive of local Charles Keiger — propose a hipster mind-scramble in his portraits of the black-clad set adrift in portentous landscapes littered with ravens or promising biblical rain showers.
Rowlett’s “Awaiting the Flood” is what happens when biblical lore and hipster DIY collide. The painting captures the kind of non-sequitur encountered on many a gambol into the Southern countryside: a cool young woman cooks over an improvised grill in a back yard ornamented with felled trees, plastic chairs and a brand-new boat propped on stilts in anticipation of some deluge.
The painting, both matter-of-fact and surreal, is on the subtler end of the spectrum on display here, which also accommodates the more floridly weird and apocalyptic work of Scott Belville, who shares a similar interest in the dire prophecies of old-time religion.
Overall, a little psychology rendered on canvas and in clay goes a long way. “The Contemporary Figure” doles out massive portions. There is some splendid work and some that is so overwrought it makes the covers of paperback fantasy novels look understated. Through April 16.