America's quest for progress subverted at Swan Coach House
King Thackston's sublime drawings at the Swan Coach House Gallery are a wry riff on the 19th century documentation of the conquest and construction of America.
Manifest destiny, the glory of man and his creations and humankind's power over nature are all asserted in photographs of industrious, brave men carving trails to the Pacific in the 19th century or erecting skyscrapers in the 20th. Thackston employs the style of these posed, heroic photographs by Lewis Hine or Timothy O'Sullivan, but he subverts the notion of "progress" they assert by showing how our national advancement is often a process of erasing the past.
It's as if the very mythos of man and maker has been revealed as a delicious folly in his large-scale pencil drawings. An artist who uses the most whimsical forms to challenge how history and ideals are constructed, Thackston once created a model railroad complete with tiny vignettes of crime scenes, racism and other public misdeeds to get at the mucky realities brewing beneath peachy-keen Americana. Thackston's punchy subtext in Deconstruction of American Icons is a similar investigation of how all our glorious myths of princesses and presidents are just as easily dismantled.
The American fixation with great and noble patriarchs, for instance, is given a postmodern gutting in Thackston's drawing "Deconstructing the U.S. Presidency," in which two of the faces on Mount Rushmore — Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington — are split into two separate images of their upper and lower faces. The work implies that in our post-Watergate, post-Clinton, hanky-panky fixated era, our trust in the institution is similarly bifurcated.
Thackston's show is also a dismantling of our notion of heroic masculinity, from his depiction of the ravishing of the Lincoln Monument, to the dissolution of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater" and Auguste Bartholdi's Statue of Liberty. The idea of noble, individual achievement is something of a joke in Thackston's work, considering how summarily it is destroyed.
Even more intangible myths, like the one about fairy princesses and their ostentatious abodes, are contested in "Taking Down Sleeping Beauty's Castle," an enormous, finely executed 42-by-65-inch drawing of the Disney residence with its soaring turrets and Tinkerbell bas-relief encased in scaffolding.
While simply challenging the bedrock of beliefs on which our nation rests might seem a hollow and trite postmodern stunt of cynical naysaying, Thackston's project is far richer. The artist's work is invested with a lyricism and even a sense of lost innocence due in part to his chosen medium of fanciful, beautifully precise graphite drawings.
There is a hint of the fantastic in the scenarios Thackston envisions, like the giant redwood harvested from the inside-out in "Deconstructing the U.S. Forest," in which workers pose for their photograph in the hollowed-out bowl of an enormous tree. We see the humble ambition of man to tame his environments and carve out his identity, or seek immortality (and end up dead like the fallen magician in "Houdini's Funeral"). And we also see the less pleasant outcome of a country where each accomplishment is wiped out to clear the slate for the next guy. Though the content of Thackston's "Deconstruction" suggests a possible future, the poses and the style of the drawings are all indicative of the past, which endows the work with a precisely focused sense of uneasiness.
Thackston's hypothetical "Believe It or Not!" musings are not always so inconceivable. Considering the frequency with which modernist architects' designs are razed to make way for faux-Tudor McMansions, the artist's drawing "Dismantling Fallingwater," in which Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous design is being turned into scrap, has the ring of a terrible sci-fi prophecy materialized.
The work is capable of provoking a genuine shudder of dismay, as with Thackston's drawing of the Lincoln Memorial being dissected, with the president's arms lying at its side and marble head long parted from its shoulders. And that response only illustrates, quite cleverly, how emotionally invested we are in not necessarily the ideals themselves, but in the signifiers of those ideals.
And yet, what is the cherished American belief in progress if not a process of erasure? It's an insight especially applicable for a city like Atlanta, a city whose history is the land on which we lay the future's parking lots.
Deconstruction of American Icons: Drawings by King Thackston runs through June 16 at Swan Coach House Gallery, 3130 Slaton Drive. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. 404-266-2636.??