I don’t know if the canal is still there, but ten years ago it rushed through the town of South Weber, Utah. I have a long scar on my leg from getting caught in the barbed wire that separated the water from the neighborhood. There were mattresses and charred tree branches. Graffiti, traffic cones, nails stuck into trees. I’m sure these places exist in every community in America, and less sure how to explain them. They are where one learns to turn an apple into a pipe by carving a quarter-sized whole in one side, a dime-sized hole in the other, and then running a ballpoint pen through both. We’d shoot BB guns at each other and at jars of spaghetti sauce stolen from the local food bank, all within sight of the canopies of our parents houses, raising above the thin line of trees. This sightline is important. All of these sites of deviance are hidden in plain sight of regions of accepted (and acceptable) land use. When they are seen at all, they are seen through the window of a car.
Andy Coolquitt is an Austin-based sculptor and installation artist who bases most of his work in these liminal spaces. His practice involves salvaging and altering objects (lights, pipes, bits of trash) so that they reflect the American vision of the post-industrial, where culture isn’t made, but purchased cheaply and then discarded. In Miami, Coolquitt recently ventured into new territory with a large installation at Locust Projects. He used defaced sheets of Plexiglas to divide a gallery filled with his sculptures.
Here, he provides a collection of photographs that he has taken at crack sites around the country. The term is his, and while it obviously references baking soda and pyrex, it could be said that these places are cracks in the fractured sense. To be clear, these photographs are not works of art, neither are they aesthetic objects. They were shot with his cellphone, and Coolquitt doesn’t consider himself a photographer. They serve a more linguistic function. The potential of narrative is in these images, ghost stories, but instead, we have a lexicon of the American wasteland.
Suburban USA has long been criticized for looking the same everywhere. This fair yet easy attack obviously relates to the facades of vernacular architecture, but it also leads to subsequent questions. What about all that is behind the façade? Not interiority, although I expect that the inner machinations of Best Buy and Applebee’s and the Chrysler dealership are somewhat similar, what is of interest is the negation of the face – the space behind the entire enterprise. The alley, the loading dock, the vacant lot: as fractures, these sites symptomize the contemporary American condition.
It has become cliché to discuss the American decline, but one cannot fail to appreciate the physical affects of this recessions. The collapse of the I-35W Mississippi Bridge in 2007 is one of the more symbolically wrought instances, as is the steady decline of Detroit. And art has responded in kind. Take Matthew Barney’s recent sculptures at Barbara Gladstone, or Trash Humpers, Harmony Korine’s latest film. In order to gain perspective, it might be helpful to think back to the 1970’s, an earlier period of American malaise.
Robert Smithson, in his A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, described construction sites as ruins in reverse. The ruin, overstuffed with the Classical, the Gothic, and the Modernist, is not a perfect match here. It is usually thought of as the monument in shambles, a relationship that must be reexamined when dealing with contemporary suburbia, which doesn’t really have any monuments.
These sites are characterized by inversion. The photographs present relics, however recent, that point to the past but suggest future gatherings. They suggest the breakdown of contemporary society, but also the formation of new communities. Aesthetically, one picks out subtle compositions in what at first appears to be chaotic. Socially, their deviance only reaffirms the propriety of the surrounding area. Although related to addiction and poverty (predominant urban diseases), they do not seem infectious. Finally, they seek to amend the fission that they cause. Having broken with normalcy, they strive to recreate it. One sees aspects of normal life here. The stereo, the couch, the living room is restaged through found materials. Coolquitt’s sculptural practice moves past the parallel dogmas of minimalism and post-modernism as these sites create a place of reassessment. These spaces offer a level of authenticity, of immediateness, that surpasses other areas.
Much has been written about the photograph’s ability to link the present to the past. Less so of its capabilities of premonition. These are photographs from the end of times. It is usually American Cinema that takes on the dystopic future. However, looking at these photos, one can’t help but see the future. –Hunter Braithwaite
All Images Courtesy Andy Coolquitt