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Deadened Kids

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Altered States: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America

at the Chicago Historical Society, through September 21

Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Art

at the Terra Museum of American Art, through June 22

By Mark Swartz

I saw school groups at both the Chicago Historical Society's "Altered States" and the Terra Museum's "Domestic Bliss," and judging from their subjects--drugs and families, respectively--they were just the kind of exhibits to fill the last restless days of the school year. (Hey kids, stay off that crack, be nice to your mom, and we'll see you in September!) Where I expected platitudes and horror stories, however, both shows achieved some measures of irony, subversion, and satire; the difference was that "Altered States" aspired to these goals, whereas the tendency to undermine its grand narrative infected "Domestic Bliss" like a virus.

"Altered States: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America"--which originated in Rochester, New York, at the Strong Museum--presents the relationship between drugs and temperance as a tug-of-war--or, to use a more modern phrase, a mutual codependency. The curators' juxtapositions of objects and images and their wall texts establish a distance from the drug wars depicted. At certain points in history the forces trying to keep people from getting high gain a little ground on the forces trying to get people high, but then a new drug comes along or society's priorities change, and a new equilibrium is reached.

Mounted in a series of interlocking carrels arranged in approximate chronological order, the accumulated materials--including bottles of patent medicines, drug paraphernalia, "Just Say No" posters, and handily presented statistics--are anchored by televisions in the room's four corners. Each plays a different short video clip depicting drug use in a different era of popular culture; because the clips endlessly repeat, if you hang out near one corner long enough, you might hear the same thing half a dozen times, Fred Astaire singing "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" or Woody Allen sneezing into a box of cocaine. This welter of information and sound combined with the labyrinthine arrangement of carrels produce something of a druglike experience in itself, enhancing the beauty of a horse silhouette on a packet of heroin and rendering complex the simplest message on abstinence. What semiotic genius, for example, dreamed up the phrase, "Get high on yourself"?

The advertisers of substances of all kinds and their antidrug opponents--from the Society for the Promotion of Temperance through M.A.D.D.--all waged their campaigns using simple, elemental phrases and images as artillery. Nineteenth-century prints of the "Devil's Toboggan Slide" (which equates personal liberty with greed and hypocrisy) and "The Drunkard's Progress" (which begins with a "glass with a friend" and culminates in "death by suicide") prefigure simplistic formulations about a hit of marijuana leading to a heroin habit.

The slogans of contemporary antidrug campaigns appeared throughout the notebook where visitors were supposed to enter their comments on the use of Joe Camel in cigarette ads. Among proclamations of "Drugs Stink" and "All you need is God" were relatively articulate comments on the economic disadvantages of keeping drugs illegal and therefore creating a market for organized crime.

The exhibit does not shy away from the economic issues surrounding drug use, presenting a quote from a 1991 Time magazine interview with Cali drug lord Gilberto Rodriguez: "When there is no demand for it... that will be the end of the problem." Al Capone put it even more succinctly 60 years earlier when he said, "I'm a businessman." For me those statements, along with the videotaped testimonial of a heroin addict, summarize the futility of a drug war, no matter whose administration stands to gain from well-hyped drug busts. The addict talks about how difficult it was to stay off drugs, despite pledges to the contrary. "I discovered how very lonely New York can be," he says.

You'd think that "Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Art" would emphasize the stability and security of the family, a force in direct opposition to the drugged-out criminal behavior depicted in "Altered States." (The show's run includes both Mother's and Father's Day--that's the kind of museum the Terra is.) It might be just that I saw one exhibit right after the other, but to my mind they're remarkably alike in their sense of underlying despair and loneliness.

The Terra Museum doesn't quite turn the phrase "Domestic Bliss" into an oxymoron, however: these are works mostly from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries depicting middle-class domestic interiors populated by mothers and children. But it manages to hint at a deadened, loveless world where the only bliss comes from the flask of rum or the bottle of laudanum hidden in the back of a cupboard. (As the text in "Altered States" remarks, efforts to hold onto an impossible antiquated ideal of domestic life created in the 1960s armies of amphetamine- and barbiturate-hooked housewives.) When the husband and father isn't absent from the Terra works--presumably he's off building railroads--he looks on disconnectedly, as in George de Forest Brush's Family Group, or occupies himself with manly pursuits like the big shot in John Lewis Frimmel's Blind Man's Bluff, who's too busy lighting his cigar to notice that one of the children is crying. The adult male is largely absent from the scene because, in actuality or metaphorically, he painted it, created it.

Perhaps because I'd just come from a show on drug culture that featured not a few psychedelic graphics, when I walked around the Terra I tended to focus less on the figures and more on their patterned surroundings: patterned rugs, wallpaper, and clothing everywhere you looked. Pauline Palmer's canvas, My Studio, Provincetown, evokes a comfy domestic ideal by means of three different patterned rugs and a patterned blanket over the chair where the lone female figure is sitting (there's also a fireplace complete with glowing embers). In Hall at Shinnecock, the American Impressionist William Merritt Chase renders a mother slouched in her chair as she watches her two daughters absorbed in some desultory game. By contrast, the patterned interior is opulent, vibrant.

In 1892--the same year Chase portrayed Shinnecock--Charlotte Perkins Gilman published her classic short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which the patterns on the walls contribute to a housewife's nervous breakdown. "You think you have mastered it," she says as her eye follows a tortuous arabesque, "but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream." The heroin addict said New York can be a lonely place. So can a house in the suburbs, so can a marriage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Narcoti-cure poster/ "hall at Shinnecock" by William Merrit Chase.

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