10 of the Best Artworks About Suburbia

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The development of the suburbs changed the social, political, and environmental landscape of America forever. The postwar exodus to a growing suburbia signified possibilities and prosperity, which is far different from our view of the suburbs now. Artists have been examining the conventions of suburban life since the first white picket fence appeared. While we anticipate the Mad Men season finale airing tonight — a series that knows a thing or two about suburban development and the hopes and fears of a country facing great change — let’s take a look at ten artworks that interpret the spirit of the suburbs.

Photo credit: Lynn Kloythanomsup of Architectural Black

Photo credit: Lynn Kloythanomsup of Architectural Black

For many, tract houses, or “cookie cutter homes,” are a smothering symbol of everything wrong with America. They signify a detestable cheaper/faster/more mentality. Designer Chad Wright, who we learned about on Phaidon, grew up in a sprawling suburb of California. For his three-part installation series Master Plan, Wright looked to his childhood memories for inspiration, “conflating a child’s sandcastle with architecture typifying postwar American suburbia.” For part one of the series, Wright created L-shaped suburban homes out of sand, installed them along the shore, and documented their destruction by the waves — perhaps reflecting the recent United States housing bubble.

Photo credit: Bill Owens

Bill Owens created his photos series Suburbia while working as a news photographer for the Livermore Independent during the early 1970s. The widely exhibited images of suburban life in California were compiled for a book. It was a fairly groundbreaking work that featured captions about middle-class life. The quotes documented and critiqued suburban communities. Owens’ photo of an African-American woman in her kitchen was accompanied by this text:

“I enjoy the suburbs. They provide Girl Scouts, PTA, Little League, and soccer for my kids. The thing I miss most is black cultural identity for my family. White middle-class suburbia can’t supply that. Here the biggest cultural happening has been the opening of two department stores.”

Photo credit: twi-ny/mdr

Married artists Nick Vaughan and Jake Margolin explored the place of gay marriage within the “American dream” for their performance and installation A Marriage: 1 (Suburbia). “We’ve been struck by the realization that a once wholly hetero-normative set of aspirations: the suburban ideal, the traditional nuclear family, emerald lawns and Betty Crocker… is now part of our heritage as well, and for better or worse we have to deal with it,” their show statement read. Projections of the artists shouting suburban aspirations into fish tanks of water and mountains of plastic bags filled with their breath (from repeating Fox News stories into them) were a few features of the large-scale work.

Photo credit: Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus described her iconic 1968 photo Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N. Y. in the 1984 book Magazine Work :

“Nat and June Tarnopol… with Paul, aged four, one of their three children, in the garden of their home at Westchester, Connecticut. They are an upper middle class family, Mr. Tarnopol being a successful agent and publisher in the pop music business. I think it’s such an odd photograph, nearly like Pinter, but not quite… the parents seem to be dreaming the child and the child seems to be inventing them.”

Photo credit: Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman has explored the guises and psychology of women in suburban settings throughout her work. The Mad Men season finale is occupying our minds, so we were struck by Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #56 and the way it seemed to reflect the show’s female personae — especially Betty Draper/Francis.

Photo credit: Frank Kunert

Frank Kunert‘s interpretation of suburbia is a dark, melancholic view of the middle-class. His intricately constructed miniatures, like The Dream of Fortune (above), are fraught with anxiety about safety, wealth, status, and isolation.

Image credit: Amy Bennett

Image credit: Amy Bennett

“I am interested in the fragility of relationships and people’s awkwardness in trying to coexist and relate to one another,” artist Amy Bennett writes on her website. She creates miniature models for her hazy paintings of unsettling domestic scenes. David Lynch would be pleased with the dark undercurrent of her Neighbors series.

Image credit: Jim Dingilian

Image credit: Jim Dingilian

Using candle smoke inside empty glass bottles, Jim Dingilian skillfully employs small brushes and other instruments to create his smoke drawings. Most of Dingilian’s work depicts fringe suburban areas, like the edges of houses and the dark areas between developments. The perspective adds a voyeuristic quality to the works. The bottles seem to reference a manufactured and disposable way of life — one often associated with the American burbs.

Image credit: Huma Mulji

Image credit: Huma Mulji

Pakistani artist Huma Mulji deals with identity in her work. In Her Suburban Dream, a stuffed cow is forced into a subservient position, choked by a concrete water pipe — a metaphor for the stifling suburban/traditional life and its effect on women.

Photo credit: Martin Adolfsson

Photo credit: Martin Adolfsson

Photographer Martin Adolfsson takes photos of model homes around the world (on the sly), documenting how suburbia is conquering not only American neighborhoods, but unexpected places like Bangkok and Shanghai (both pictured above). He “explores the search for identity among the new upper middle class in emerging economies,” which he views as an “amusing and awkwardly eerie” constructed world not unlike The Truman Show .