...After the Suburbs waves goodbye to the glory days

Kiang Gallery exhibition ponders suburbia's future

By the time my parents moved away from their suburban subdivision outside of Nashville five years ago, the shine had already worn off the suburban dream. The distance from the city that was supposed to guarantee safety and predictability had instead begun to deliver isolation and a lingering paranoia as the subdivision and the suburb around it began to feel the first tectonic shifts of socioeconomic change.

The changes in the suburbs both locally and internationally form the subject of ...After the Suburbs, a subtle and perceptive group show at Kiang Gallery curated by Atlanta artist Karen Tauches. ...After the Suburbs largely assumes that suburbia's moment of post-war expansionist glory is over. The show's 15 artists pick apart what's left: what can be saved, what can be reused and what parts of the dream remain.

Alex Rogers' digital media work "Untitled (Subdivision Names)" pulls words from a database containing 150 names of Atlanta subdivisions, randomly reassembling them to create fictitious names that are both entirely realistic and laughably pompous: Ashley Brooke, Dunmore Branches, Belmont Place. Nowhere else is suburbia's pretension toward Anglophilic, Victorian stateliness more evident.

From the same thematic well, Amandine Drouet's "Monumental Sign (Evergreen Gates)" comprises a tiny subdivision gate constructed of recycled soy milk containers refashioned into bricks and emblazoned with the name "Evergreen Gates" in florid cursive. Small and protecting nothing, the gate is charming and a little bit sad, vulnerable in the outsized optimism it reaches for.

Other works directly point to suburbia's broken promise. In a series of small photographs, James Griffioen documents abandoned houses, many of which are taken completely over by nature every summer in Detroit's suburbs. Sarah Hobbs' "Avoidance" features an imposing blank foyer and front door with its oh-so-suburban Palladian window covered with aluminum foil — a monument to some irrational fear of the outside.

Historically, American suburbs were supposed to be a compromise. They were meant to combine the health of nature and country living with access to the economic engine of city centers. But in Atlanta as elsewhere, the centrifugal force pulling populations further and further out from the city's core adopted an uglier name: sprawl. And the relationship between human settlement and nature began to look less like a compromise and more like a battleground.

Many of the works in ...After the Suburbs dramatize the conflict: Nancy Vandevender's "greenery" made of cheap-looking chintz fabric strung across the gallery walls is both a mockery and a commemoration of nature. Meg Aubrey's small, tightly rendered paintings of generic suburban landscapes depict such a relentless taming of trees and shrubs that natural forms take on the qualities of architecture or stone sculpture.

Urbanist and professional naysayer James Kunstler has called America's post World War II suburban sprawl "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known." I'm inclined to agree. But the question remains what to do now that we've got them, and now that they've become a global phenomenon. ...After the Suburbs offers a series of intriguing recalibrations. The suburban dream hasn't died, but its 21st-century form may be like nothing we've seen before.

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