S. Patricia Patterson re-imagines the American Dream in Back to the Future

Forward Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award winner's vision has a nightmarish twist

S. Patricia Patterson's latest body of work and first major solo show, Back to the Future, is the result of her 2012 Emerging Artist Award. The Forward Arts Foundation gifted Patterson with a $10,000 grant, which she used to continue the motifs of youth, memory, and nostalgia she often employs in her multimedia works. Patterson mixes watercolor, screen-printing, and bold geometric patterns in scenes that recreate an idealism found both in childhood and a certain kind of consumer-based American patriotism.

"Trigger Keeper" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" make the best use of what Patterson describes in her artist's statement as a "confluence of hazily recollected childhood astonishment and mid-century collective ambition." Patterson tempers the preciousness of nostalgia with a series of off-putting cultural references.

In "Trigger Keeper," a pair of young boys, presumably brothers, wear matching flannel shirts and John Deere caps. Guns in hand, they stand in front of a T-Top Trans Am Firebird parked at a 45-degree angle, the familiar muscle car pose, echoed in the dark turquoise chevron stripes covering the ground. This self-consciously masculine branding seems too adult, as if they are emulating the uniform of a working-class man.

It might seem like an innocently romanticized portrait of male youth, but Patterson's soft watercolors and the mauve of the boys' shirts clash with the image's machismo. The guns hang flaccid in their small arms. Already incongruous, the scene becomes absurd when the connection is made between the chevron pattern and eerie cult TV show "Twin Peaks." (The Red Room at the Black Lodge featured similar flooring.) With "Trigger Keeper," Patterson is pointing out both the illusory qualities of memory and the bizarreness of indoctrinating children into gender politics at such a young age.

Patterson takes a similar approach to female conditioning in "Yankee Doodle Dandy." A wide-eyed girl in a red leotard, tap shoes, and an Uncle Sam-style top hat poses on a tabletop. She stands with her hands on hips and smile fixed, a precursor to the "Toddlers & Tiaras" version of over-the-top child pageantry. She has no audience to appreciate her efforts; the office chairs that surround the table are unoccupied. Despite the room's emptiness, the painting feels claustrophobic, as if the tabletop and ceiling are moving in to crush her. The pattern covering the walls mimics Hicks' hexagon, the same design on the hotel carpet in The Shining. The reference recalls the film's murdered twin girls that famously ask Danny to play with them.

When Patterson layers glimpses of childhood fun with the serious implications of adulthood, the works take on a complex, nightmarish quality. A few paintings are left wanting, however, feeling less like strange dreams than straightforward portraits. "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which a family is pictured taking a break from a road trip, is sweet but lacks the intellectual depth of something like "Trigger Keeper." The same goes for "Santa's Little Helpers," a simple depiction of two kids on Santa's lap. Although some works can veer toward Hallmark card-style reminiscence, Patterson's tender visual rendering is captivating when imbued with darker themes.