Tuesday, September 7, 2010

(Recon)Figuring the Fifties

(Recon)Figuring the Fifties

By Tom Wachunas

“It must have been a very magical time, the fifties,” Aegolius said, his voice cracking, a tear streaking his face. “People seemed so happy.”
Nyctea was taken aback by his weepy display. Gathering her thoughts, she looked deep into his eyes for a long time before answering. “But you were too young then, my love. How could you know?”
“Well, there are the magazines I saw at the museum, and those movies, and television and…”
His voice trailed off as Nyctea touched his shoulder gently and said, “Many people were unhappy and troubled, and they…”
Aegolius interrupted, “Who? What did they do?”
“They made the sixties,” she replied.

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

According to some, the 1950s in America was the best of times – a period of confidence and optimism, of vigorous renewal after the bloodbath of World War II. A time when societal roles and expectations were solidified. When men were breadwinners and women proud of it. When houses were built and bought and filled with babies. And stuff. Lots of stuff. Television was becoming an increasingly ubiquitous funhouse mirror. Therein we saw pristine likenesses of ourselves – a collective Narcissus with Pepsodent-Bright smile living happily amid our stuff in a stupor of conformity. Meanwhile, McCarthyism poisoned our hearts with atomic angst and Cold War paranoia. We built bomb shelters and blacklists. Yet through it all The Duke swaggered, Disney dazzled, Ol’ Blue eyes crooned, Marilyn seduced, and Elvis began his sultry swivel into pop immortality. But lest we forget the real hipsters, remember how Pollock splattered, Ginsberg howled, Dean rebelled just because, and Kerouac hit the American road to the beat of his band of very different drummers. The tides of change were swelling inexorably, and the undertow of discontent amid consumerist complacency was getting stronger.

Is it any wonder that the sixties hit us like a sunami, immersing us once and for all in a catastrophic sludge of divisive sociopolitical and moral pluralisms? And is it any wonder that a thinking child of the eighties might on one hand be attracted to the superfluous accoutrements of fifties promise and stability, and on the other be suspicious of its rubber-stamped charm?

Ashley Barlow was born in the eighties, and sometime during her childhood a fascination with the fifties blossomed. Her one-woman show at Anderson Creative, “ON THE ROCKS: Re-imagining the 50s,” is a thematic installation immediately striking in its physical sparseness. There’s a lot of air here, leaving considerable room to negotiate mental connections. For all the text Barlow provides (via vintage game flash cards incorporated with her mixed media collages), the words and phrases are more cryptic than overtly informative, effectively challenging viewers to fill in the conceptual blanks. Her keen interest in the distinctive iconography and industrial/ consumer designs of the 1950s would seem to run much deeper than merely re-packaging their cosmetic appeal.

The authentic kitchen setting at the front end of the gallery effectively lays out the menu, as it were, for the entire show. Mint green dinnerware against faux red marbleized oval tabletop, and Philco refrigerator with its rounded corners, are reminders that overly-intense color contrasts and sharp edges just won’t do in the idyllic 50s. But check out the curtained window and the scene collaged on to the panes. In the ‘foreground’ is a well-dressed woman gazing into a space (time?) far past us, seemingly unaware of the free-falling figure in the sky – a distressed businessman tethered to a severed rope. Who in this scenario is really ignorant of, or guilty of something, or perhaps at a major crossroads? As the title says, “Indeed, I Haven’t the Slightest Idea.”

In the posted large- print interview with the artist, Barlow explains her youthful love of the 50s with references to “the crispness of that world,” and the “dependable” look of the pin-up girls. “It was a sexy decade without all the sex in your face,” she tells us. “It left something to be imagined.” And therein is perhaps the soul of this exhibit – the imagining, the tension between the apparent and implied, the said and unsaid, the façade and the things underneath that an entire decade so anxiously repressed and homogenized.

So there’s great irony here. Particularly with her mixed media collages on canvas, Barlow seems to be (arguably) not so much appreciating as questioning her original school-girl attraction to a distant time – its esthetics, its values - wondering now just how crisp and dependable the 50s really were. In “Upgrade Now,” a man wearing a white jacket is apparently ‘demonstrating’ a naked pin-up girl, tummy-down on a beach towel or sheet, to an enthralled group of nattily dressed women. Upgrade to what – aspiring to be the ideal woman? And in “To Be Quite Truthful, I Don’t Know Myself,” a disheveled (hung over?) man leans on his bathroom sink, peering at the floating hallucination of a Vegas showgirl. Haunted by another fantasy, or regretting last night’s debauchery?

Interestingly enough, after seeing this show, I can’t get Eddie Haskell out of my head. He’s the weasly, two-faced wise guy from “Leave it to Beaver,” the wildly popular sitcom that premiered on CBS in 1957. Hindsight being the better part of social wisdom, I appreciate him now more than I did then. Then, he earned our disdain, with his toady politeness. While he was the closest thing to a sycophant that television of the day could cheerfully portray, now I can see his hypocrisy as a necessary companion to the greater hypocrisies of his time. He was such an easy target for our ridicule because he diverted attention from our own shortcomings and insecurities, even as we touted the squeaky-clean values and smoothed edges of idealized suburbia.

If it isn’t already apparent to you by now, I think Barlow’s art brings much to our ideological table to chew on. Fifties nostalgia aside, I’m left wondering, when it comes to our ideals and ethics and social behaviors, if we’re really any better off now than we were then, with our formulas for clean and proper living, our plans for hopeful futures. More important, will we get it right in the decade(s) to come? To be quite truthful, I don’t know myself, Mrs. Cleaver. Like the stark, empty backgrounds in several of Barlow’s canvases, both the past and future remain fill-in-the-blank propositions.

Photo: “To Be Quite Truthful, I Don’t Know Myself,” mixed media collage by Ashley Barlow, on view in her exhibit. “ON THE ROCKS: Re-Imagining the 50s” at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton, Ohio – through September 25. Gallery hours Tuesday – Saturday 12:00 – 5:00.

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