Gaining insight into an artist’s motives is an opportunity to be relished. Our own Mark Rawlinson orchestrated one such opportunity at the Djanogly Gallery last weekend. A symposium accompanying the And Now It’s Dark exhibition brought Mark into discussion with two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Jeff Brouws and Will Steacy. Something that struck a chord with my own study and the research I’m doing for my dissertation was the talk given by Jeff Brouws, a photographer whose work is an anthropological investigation into the American cultural landscape. Brouws’ photography cross-examines the construction of an American Dream and the subsequent feeling of obsolescence and disillusionment when this turns out to be baseless.
The American Dream has been embedded in a global consciousness as an achievable ideal through decades of film, print media and political promise. Guarantees of freedom, prosperity and infinite possibility continue to seduce the rest of the world and serve as fodder for patriotic Americans. Brouws dedicated the early part of his photographic career to exposing the flaws in this myth, or as he so deftly phrased it, “the frayed edges of the American Dream”. His photographs deal consistently with the vernacular in American suburban environments – cafés, gas stations, strip malls, motels and highways. The aesthetic is highly contrasted, saturated with colour and sharp edges, as if borrowing aesthetic elements as well as subject matter from Pop Art. There is a sinister air about these images, though, that mimics a film noir aesthetic. The motels are seedy, often bathed in a red neon glow as if residing in a red light district; the street corners are dimly lit and void of human presence, giving an alienating impression that we are alone in the space with hostility lurking in the shadows. We are never safe in these photographs, occupying nocturnal spaces that Brouws observes play host to prostitution, drug dealing and crime. This is a far cry from the picket fence promises of the American Dream.
Brouws does more than capture isolated snapshots of these vernacular buildings, plotting how the journey between them functions within the notion of the American Dream. Freedom and mobility became key narratives in the American psyche following novels such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Eminent domain legislation enabled the building of inter-state freeways in the 1950s, which aided in transforming American car culture into something all-consuming and awe-inspiring. Brouws undercuts this notion of mobility and the uninhibited road trip by suggesting that these journeys are, as he names a latter photographic series, “approaching nowhere”. Brouws captures this unfulfilled promise of mobility in Mobil / trailer, Inyokern, California. To the left, a neon Mobil sign and illuminated gas pumps embody franchised car culture and all that the media promises us; to the right, a driverless broken down trailer basks in the periphery of the artificial light. The two halves contradict each other, battling to establish mobility and to negate it. The faint silhouette of expansive terrain teases us with something beautiful that we cannot reach.
Regrettably, this distant scenic landscape is in peril. Another interesting thread in Brouws’ early work is that of the “franchised landscape”. Insatiable consumerism swarms skylines in some photographs, neon signs climbing ever higher to stand out amongst a crowd of advertisements and logos. Brouws identifies what he calls an “encouragement of corporate culture into the contemporary landscape” and often populates his photographs of this expansion with motifs of car culture. One untitled photograph from the Franchised Landscape series shows a curving road acting as a bisector between the man-made, corporate chain store and the topographical beauty of the natural landscape. For now, the corporate invasion is contained by the road but one cannot help but fear the moment that it pushes beyond this boundary into the mountainous terrain. The American landscape itself becomes commodified as a kind of commercial battleground. The promising culture of plenty in America evidently has consequences.
The work of Brouws is both aesthetically and conceptually stimulating, forcing us to interrogate the dreamlike persona of America as a country with a moral compass, boundless opportunities and the perfect suburban lifestyle. Hearing Brouws, as a San Franciscan, talk first-hand about his work exposes a criticism of this myth from within. It is now our place to consider and deconstruct this myth as outsiders.
Elizabeth Stansfield (BA Art History, third year student)
And Now It’s Dark: American Night Photography, curated by Dr Mark Rawlinson, is on at the Djanogly Art Gallery until Sunday 9 November.