The American Dream – Drentsmuseum, Assen

Is it a sign of the times, is my perception of the land across the Atlantic shifting? I was brought up on the art world of the U.S. It was a constant point of reference during my years at art school. For me it was, and still is, the abstract art that was the focus, large scale, often very lean and reduced. But the exhibition The American Dream spread across the Drentsmuseum in Assen, the Netherlands, and the museum in the northern German city of Emden, the focus is on figuration. Assen has responsibility for the twentieth century up until 1965.

The title The American Dream makes use of an often heard phrase, a dream, or an ideal perhaps. Either interpretation hints at a positive view of America, its people and way of life. From a distance I have often viewed this as maybe a bit brash, larger than life, a very ‘in your face’ view of the reality being depicted. However, and this may be being influenced by the current political and social shifts going on, the feeling I gain from seeing this exhibition is one of melancholy. This doesn’t feel like a land of hope, possibilities and of dreams, it’s just as much about suffering, disappointment and often loneliness. There seem to be figures adrift in the world, or at the very least, adrift in a sort of introspection and battles with the city, the landscape and nature.

 

Even when an image of a brash, attractive surface is to be found, in this day and age it seems only too inviting to prick through its shiny surface and ask what is the reality playing out beneath. Is it a world that we might aspire to be part of? Is it a dream or is it even a dream that is sliding into something closer to a nightmare.

Melancholy can certainly be found in the single or isolated figures that people many of the pieces but at times it seems to take on an almost David Lynchian menace, with concealed narratives seeming to be lurking in the background. A link that is never any clearer than in Catharine Murphy’s painting In the Grass. In this case the snake that is approaching from the top left. But the hose pipe takes me in this context instantly back to the opening sequence of Lynch’s Blue Velvet and it’s tale of what lies beneath the tranquility of suburban America.

Even Roy Lichtenstein’s Crying Girl seems to have become charged with a sorrow that I haven’t ever felt before!

The star turn of the exhibition is Edward Hopper’s painting Morning Sun, a painting modeled of the artist’s then 68 year old wife. It’s a beautiful, serene image, but as with many of the artist’s works there hangs a series of questions. What are the thoughts being contemplated? Has something happened? What is playing out just beyond the frame of the painting? The very same questions I find myself asking about multiple artworks in the exhibition.

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Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines

The silence is almost deafening. Crewdson’s frozen moments in time are peopled views of small town America on the fringes of the mysteries and secrets of the forest. They are immaculately constructed compositions with a huge amount of attention given to detail both in terms of their technical achievement but more significantly the way in which each of these large-scale photographs are packed with elements that seem to be so consciously placed. Where and who do those footprints in the snow lead to? Why are there so many apples in the grass when there is not a single apple on the tree and what, if anything, has just been said?

In this collection of work at The Photographer’s Gallery in London the human relationship with nature seems often to be present, but is not wild and beautiful nature, it is nature that seems always to disclose a human resonance, a production forest, remnants of a previous human industrial intervention or simply the detritus of daily life left discarded.

The photographs draw a variety of parallels from the simple domesticity of a woman at a sink in front of a window, that has more than a little Vermeer about it, to the visual connections with Edward Hopper’s often equally silent interiors. But it’s more than compositional parallels, the rather dark sense of mystery that hangs around these carefully positioned individuals brings more than just a little connection with my memories of watching David Lynch’s Twin Peaks all those years ago.

But for me, viewing them from a perspective that includes twentieth century Dutch art history I am reminded also of the work of Carel Wellink, with their seemingly film set like sense of reality, a disquieting sharp focus where you struggle to feel comfortable with the view that you have stumbled on.

Crewdson’s work is, for me at least, a fascinating discovery and offer some food for thought for future education based projects.