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American Beauty

Lee Friedlander frames the detritus of a nation as art.



Sticks and Stones: Architectural America

Lee Friedlander

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

In 1963, at the outset of a career that's yielded 16 books and an upcoming retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Lee Friedlander claimed as his subject "the American social landscape and its conditions." And ever since a 1966 exhibit, "Toward a Social Landscape," he's documented America's strangeness in photographs that have showed he's a worthy heir of Walker Evans and the peer of such contemporaries as Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank. Friedlander's masterful new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, "Sticks and Stones: Architectural America," contains what he considers his best work yet. His pictures of buildings and rubble, fences and telephone wires, front yards, store windows, and advertising signage both delineate our society and suggest how we might live more creatively within it.

Friedlander's title for this black-and-white series--shot with a large-format camera between 1992 and 2003 and also represented in a book of the same name--alludes to Lewis Mumford's 1924 classic, Sticks and Stones, on the relationship between American architecture and civilization. Mumford's two epigraphs--W.R. Lethaby's "Architecture, properly understood, is civilization itself" and Matthew Arnold's "What is civilization? It is the humanization of society"--underlie not only Friedlander's notion that America's structures are crucial to its social landscape but that nondescript or shoddy architecture contributes to our culture's dehumanization.

For the "sticks and stones" of the nursery chant Friedlander substitutes rebar and concrete, which may not break our bones but can numb the senses and depress the spirit. To counteract the malaise induced by structures and messages that appeal to consumers, not citizens, Friedlander deploys an array of formal strategies. He's said that the series is more about the "architecture of the picture" than architecture, and his command of composition and detail is what redeems the photos' content: chaos and detritus, follies and failures and misbegotten successes.

One of Friedlander's most effective techniques is to give equal weight to the peripheral: what surrounds the ostensible subject or is at odds with it. At the center of Tucson, Arizona, 1998 is a littered corridor splitting two shabby dwellings. Two sets of chain-link padlocked gates provide a layered foreground while above them razor wire strung in paranoiac curls unwittingly parodies Olympic rings. While the receding space of the corridor pulls the eye in, the barriers arrest it; meanwhile the tension among the planes produces an aesthetic pleasure that's out of proportion to the site's impoverished drabness.

Multiple points of interest also enrich Friedlander's views of buildings more grand than these but equally devoid of humanity. In New York City, 2001 he shoots a boxy glass skyscraper through the elegant, curvilinear aperture in a freestanding wall seen in extreme close-up in the foreground. Crafted from bricks and striated mortar and part of a much older structure than the skyscraper, it reveals skilled labor and handiwork. To coexist with empty contemporary architecture, the photographer implies, we might try seeing it through such ready-made frames.

Friedlander incorporates an astonishing amount of information in these dense photographs by choosing scenes with multiple layers, framing them to include lots of details and reflective surfaces. In Las Vegas, 2002, taken from the photographer's car, an ersatz Statue of Liberty appears above a multilane thoroughfare while the car's rearview mirror shows another, more disturbing vision: figures traversing an overpass on their way to make or lose money at the casinos--they're like the zombies in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land peopling an "unreal city." Mirrors aren't the only reflective surfaces Friedlander uses. In a shot of houses on a Brooklyn street, a van's back window morphs Halloween decorations and a flag into a gorgeously distorted fun house mirror, and elsewhere he splits his subjects in two by catching reflections in storefront windows. As he's done since his first book, 1970's Self-Portrait, he also catches parts of himself in such reflections, emphasizing the subjective aspect of this "objective" medium.

Friedlander's finely honed sense of the absurd also redeems these views. San Angelo, Texas, 1997 is a full-frontal view of a home whose yard is a welter of incongruous objects: a kid's bike in the midst of kneeling magi, a dazed wooden reindeer, a pitchfork. It seems the metal gate should be inscribed with Dante's "All hope abandon, ye who enter here." Instead it reads "Jesus Loves Ya," which might be reassuring if it didn't seem to be issuing from the shouting mouth of a plastic Santa Claus menacingly suspended from the archway. Similarly, the message on a marquee in New Mexico entreating God to bless America gets scrambled by a Burger Boy sign in place above His name. Friedlander's genius is to place America's teeming imprecations and expressions of belief in their all-too-human contexts.

In Memphis, 2003 Friedlander crowns the tacky pyramid of a massive arena with the inverted pyramid of a Yield sign. With such comic juxtapositions he quietly, wryly counterbalances the American wilderness of cliche and nitwit simulacra.

When: Through Sat 5/14: Mon-Fri 10 AM-5 PM, Thu till 8 PM; Sat noon-5 PM

Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan

Info: 312-344-5554

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