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Close Encounters

The photographic world of Gregory Crewdson

... I think a good deal about your advice to go abroad and if I can swing it I will try to take the family over in the fall. Perhaps I do waste my time writing up indictments of these harmless neighbours.
from The Letters of John Cheever

A flock of butterflies forms a cluster as wide and psychedelic as a peacock's plumage. This pretty hoard of ravenous lepidoptera engulfs the unknown, stripping it of meat and blood, until each feed upon the others' lips. Of course, not really. Really, they are probably paper, or maybe the real thing, real dead and pinned onto a Styrofoam ball; a hobby shop display hobnobbing with real fur and real dead animals. This is real outside, outside of itself. The hobbyist, a careful and exacting executioner of detail, hovers above the enclave, orchestrating an expansive dead zone.

Gregory Crewdson is a docudrama photographer who pulls made-for-television images off the lids of his eyes. In one close-up, fence posts look like tombstones in an overgrown garden. More butterflies are caught in Rapunzel braids. Ripe plants bow and an assortment of birds pick at litter in a muddy ditch. No one's home, and like the model houses that promise cosy cul-de-sac communities, Crewdson's homes are frauds, lifeless vacuums that blow dreams of ring-around-the-roses and unlocked doors. His world, a family values-ville, a heterotopic extreme, is a place like any other place that is like any other place. Birds chirp away on trees of dogwood flowers, then move in for their close-ups, star witnesses to minor spats, marital anguish and missing welcome mats.

As colourful as Christmas, Crewdson's tableaux of perpetual springtime owe as much to Stations of the Cross figurines and creche scenes - which they seem to quote with oddly placed holiday lights - as they do to the museum dioramas of Hiroshi Sugimoto. Disappearance and Darwinism are at the foundation of Crewdson's misleadingly decorative pictures. The family unit associated with small town living has either fled or expired, and wildlife, which had been pushed out by construction, has moved back in. Crewdson's scaled down neighbourhoods, with their fundamentalist tone, could easily pass as set designs for Bill Owens' operatic Suburbia pictures of the 70s. At 32, Crewdson would be a child in Owens' pictures of first home purchasers and Elks brethren, and in his work the heyday of brand new families is merged with a time that does not yet exist. 'We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food and we have a really nice home', says an Owens subject from suburbia. Crewdson parries with a rose-tinted Village of the Damned, where peace and quiet creep corpse-like.

Looking in, and the act of being watched are the book ends of privacy in villages and towns. Watching and looking are endlessly dangerous pastimes, because eyes that are looking can be caught looking. A deerish fox observes the enclave from atop a hill. Wise and not so foxy, he stands like Martin Guerre, surveying the lay of the land from behind an oddly placed white picket fence. Dead as a door knob, this stuffed animal reappears, upside-down in a pile of leaves, eternally tempted by bunches of allegorical grapes. Crewdson has built a Nature Morte, where nature is the site of humanity's collective crime. In a twist on the traditional struggle of man vs. nature, he poses man - represented by architecture - as the biggest threat. Projecting a hyper-awareness of the inherent conflict between nature and the house, Vincent Scully, writing in The New Urbanism argues that 'all human culture is intended to protect human beings from nature in one way or another and to mitigate the effect upon them of nature's immutable laws. Architecture is one of humanity's major strategies in that endeavour... Its purpose is to mediate between the individual and the natural world by creating the physical reality of the human community, by which the individual is linked to the rest of humanity and nature is in part kept out, in part framed, tamed and itself humanised.' While Crewdson is looking for a more equitable relationship to shared space, in the end he forfeits this space to nature.

The world that Crewdson recreates is symbolically close to the lost city of Atlantis. Not yet gone, the suburbia of the 50s, 60s and 70s - the jewel of the white male heterosexual - is perpetually going, going. The hysteria at the root of Crewdson's work hides coyly beneath the unpopulated, miniaturised surface. Caught between the uncomfortable politics of the sparkly white 'New Urbanism' and the last ditch attempts of 'Defensible Spaces', his landscapes detail a universal yearning to be safe, enclosed and shut off from poverty and unruly nature.

Suburbia, its name in shining lights, has managed over the years to pose as a fascinating, if sometimes hackneyed, house of wonderment for those in the arts. In the late 80s Crewdson began photographing strangers in their homes as if they were relatives or friends. He was interested in devising a domestic theatre where the home became a stage for faking the mundane rituals of living. In a particularly awkward interior shot, an older woman in stretch pants kneels on the floor of her living room. A large colour television bleats out blue static. The window blinds are closed and the woman's lips are pursed. She seems caught between the crisis on the imageless TV and the action that has found her bent attentively in the camera's gaze. The picture exudes neither the beauty of a Nan Goldin candid nor the engagement of a Larry Fink portrait. It is the essential family photo, completely without visual appeal, totally counterfeit and ultimately rivetting. Playing with photography's inherent qualities, Crewdson borrowed real families in order to manufacture a photography of verisimilitude where the picture provides half truths whilst pretending to document.

As Crewdson's craft developed, exteriors replaced the detail of co-habitation. His small cast of characters are replaced by taxidermy and synthetic or preserved larvae and insects. A few loaded objects - a garden hose, a ladder, a dog house, a cache of barrettes - are carefully planted to suggest an apocalyptic flash. Rotten fruit falls from an unharvested tree and two dead birds nap beneath. Something is amiss. The diorama, which tells us how we used to be, is appropriated by Crewdson to enact playlets without characters. New Yorker critic William Congreve's remark about John Cheever's stories, that 'he selected a moral and then designed a fable to fit it' might equally apply to Crewdson's work. Animals roaming the suburban earth, past the woods and onto the lawn: the meek seem to have inherited it all. Those scenes preserve a record of contemporary life as if it had vanished, like the museum in The Planet of The Apes. They hinge on the viewer's desire to see suburbia as relic, and their ability to see themselves as obsolete.

In its most traditional form, suburbia becomes a showcase for the family, visited by the father in the evenings and on the weekend. In an interview between Crewdson and James Casebere in Blindspot, the two discuss the 'uncanny', present in the model homes of both artists. Says Crewdson, '...instead of domesticating nature, what I want to do is to make the domestic mysterious.' For most men, the domestic has always been a mystery. Conventionally built and owned by men, the house, like the womb, is a part of the feminine. While women are isolated from the world, men are isolated from the home. By investing many of his pictures with a noirish suggestion of danger - the image of an open window, its frame bathed in the hushed blue light of darkness - he visits a male threat upon the female body. If something odious is going to occur, the Hollywood of Cronenberg, Hitchcock, Carpenter, Raimi (Crewdson's biggest influence), directs that it should be the work of men. Suddenly, Crewdson's concerns shift from ecology (Crewdson as willing victim and preservationist) to a low key misogyny (Crewdson as aggressor and preserver of the status quo).

This conflation of passive and aggressive identities locates Crewdson at opposite ends of the spectrum, creating an eddy of anxiety in which his artificially tranquil town spins. When he speaks about the 'oppression of nature', he reveals the conflict: '...There is always evidence of the family or man trying to impress order onto the natural world...by fencing it in, by cutting it down, essentially by destroying it or oppressing it.' Such phrases suggest an undercurrent in his work based on a crisis of masculinity. Phrase the above quote in a slightly different manner and one is left with the impression that the family is trying to impress order on the man. Crewdson's surburbia is essentially an endgame for masculinity.

'He's not going any place. There's no place for him to go. See him? He's scared shitless. He knows we're here. He's just cruising around now looking for someplace to go. See, he stopped again. He can't go anyplace. He knows that. He knows we're going to nail him. He knows it's tough shit. I'll go up and scare him down. You get him when he comes through.'
- Raymond Carver, Nobody Said Anything

Carver's fish stories describe the helplessness with which men forsake an outmoded brand of everyday masculinity. The 'he' of the passage above, the fish, is remarkably akin to many of Carver's male characters who feel they have been stripped or whipped. Like the handiwork of a weekend painter, manliness has become a hobby and Crewdson, the hobbyist, builds around Carver's reaction to the disappearance of nature and male performance within it. His photographs form a curious study of how men navigate the space between domain and domesticity. Boys play with the land, move it with toy dumptrucks and firecrackers. But the house itself is rarely entered in Crewdsonville. Is he attacking suburbia, or is he holding destruction at bay? Are Crewdson's model houses really doll houses, strictly feminine toys that propagate domesticity? While the house is consistently a presence in male artists work - Gordon Matta-Clark's Splitting (1974), Ed Ruscha's Night of The Hunter scrim, PM (1988), Richard Prince's house filled with his surrogate image, Joel Shapiro's and Robert Gober's burning houses, Dan Graham's pavilions - it is most often the site of overpowering or rebellion.

Crewdson seeks for his still photography the narrative space of film and the quirky characterisation of screenplays. He wants his pictures to unroll a plot, but they stubbornly refuse to tell stories. His dioramas may look like holding bays for petty tirades, wife swaps and Bar-B-Q's, but in the end they are more exacting as empty shells that sell clichés as experiences. For all the attention to 'family living', only one image includes such a unit. In the strongest of Crewdson's early interiors, three children appear to watch TV on a queen size bed with their parents. A young boy, his face awash with TV shine is captivated, while the rest of the family looks bored. The boy seems drawn into the picture by a light, like the heroine of Poltergeist who, once abducted, spoke through a television set. These paranormal quotations suggest impending danger and suburban terror.

What is one to make of Crewdson's evacuation of the family and the proliferation of nimble Orwellian animals that seem to be living off the wreckage? Perhaps this decampment, or the impulse that effects it, spurs from a kind of white heterosexual male paranoia, related to the loss of domain. Crewdson's work enables an unmasking of abject fear. Stephen Spielberg, whom Crewdson counts as one of his biggest influences, is celebrated in a 1992 portrait, a huge pile of earth and debris. Close Encounters of the Third Kind, like E.T. and Jurassic Park focuses on the fear of an insuppressible invasion. While Crewdson's miniature realms materially echo the pre-production work done on sci-fi movies, it is the possibility and aftermath of invasion that bring his vision into alignment with his idol's. In real life suburbia, the new populations include African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and homosexuals. This 'invasion' has shattered the homogeneity of suburban living.

Instead of creating a theatre of characters and episodes, Crewdson recreates himself as the unseen star. Like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters..., Crewdson builds his coquettish maquettes with almost religious control. A Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, he towers over the world, momentarily a demi-god - part goofball part terrorist, executing a change in the landscape with a wave of his hand. The photographer, the unchallenged surveyor, has generally been free to manipulate the representation of the world via documentation. Crewdson calls documentary photography into question by replicating the landscape in order to document it. He casts his Crewdsonvilles with archaic memories and fantasies of close-knit communities. His camera, poked through windows and between bushes, becomes the menacing presence, preying on a characterless charade. Unlike Michael Powell's camera-obsessed Peeping Tom, Crewdson can illustrate the posture of peeping as well as peep perpetually, without guilt or retribution, while continuously being 'caught' on film.

His move away from human subjects distances him from the photographers whose New York gallery he shares. His project hints at the pleasures of pointing one's lens between someone else's legs, suggests the dubious thrill of perusal and ravishment, while chronically resisting contact with anything living. Unable to ingratiate as Larry Clark does, stalk as Sophie Calle, seductively observe like Jack Pierson or tie up women and hang them naked from the ceiling like Nobuyoshi Araki, Crewdson plays intruder by himself. Alone and safe in the plastic, feathered and balsa wood enclave, Crewdson is free to haunt.

Issue 21

First published in Issue 21

Mar - Apr 1995
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