Beyond the Backyard – Exhibition Review

I have recently started doing irregular exhibition reviews for the central business district weekly newspaper, the Chicago Journal. Most recently I contributed a review of “Beyond the Backyard”, a photo exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Look out for more reviews this fall.

Beyond the Backyard June 20-August 23, 2008
Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago at 600 S. Michigan Avenue 312-663-5554 M-Sa 10am-5pm (Thursday until 8pm, Sunday noon-5pm).

“Fighting for Space” Review by Daniel Tucker (miscprojects.com)

BBQs with lawn chairs, games and gardens or just chilling. These are common associations with the backyard lifestyle in Chicago. Throw in animal attacks, overturned school buses, anonymous sexual encounters and trees on fire and you’ve got less than half of the backyard experiences one can encounter in “Beyond the Backyard”, the current photo show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. 

“The backyard is more than a place; it is also a social norm, reinforced by advertising and media imagery over half a century” writes the exhibition curator and researcher Karsten Lund. To confirm that curatorial statement, Lund included photos from Life magazine and other local and regional publications, helping to re-enforce the normalized view of backyards and their association with idealized suburban life. Bill Owens, who was a staff photographer at a suburban newspaper in Livermore, California produced a remarkable survey of everyday suburban life in the 1970s. He documents situations candidly and respectfully, but in looking at the photos today the scenes of suburban dads bar-b-queing and moms watering lawns can not escape associations with the critical commentary of recent years that pits suburban growth against urban decay and argues for the regulation of suburban sprawl to control traffic congestion, commute times, oil dependency and exhaust reduction. To be sure, the sprawl of Chicago’s suburbs cannot be blamed on the suburbanites themselves, and would require a careful consideration of historical misinformation and economic incentives as well as technological innovations that have contributed to the massive growth of our regional population which has occurred simultaneous to our city’s population decline.

The show features many scenes of backyard life that have little to do with suburban culture. In fact the themes most visible in the exhibition are youth, family, isolation, decoration, class, nature, and leisure time. Mark PoKempner and Meg Gerkin were contributors to the 1980s initiative “The Changing Chicago Project” which attempted to develop images of life in the city that went beyond the postcard representation of loop-centered Chicago. There are numerous such contributions in this show that attempt to document what leisure life is like for those on the ever-increasing low-side of economic inequality. Stephen Marc’s “52nd and Harper” and “63rd and Greenwood, sidewalk living room game” show southside men using public and abandoned space to enjoy chess and cards. There is a significant amount of such documentary photography working in the tradition of social realism and attempting to grapple with and ask challenging questions about who has access to safe and stable gathering spaces in the city. An undertone of the collected works in exhibition is the portrayal of suburban life as cold, awkward and alienated, and urban life as communal and vital – but focusing on such cultural differences do not allow us to better understand the root problems that force some to make do with cement and milk-crates while others wallow in the excess of huge lawns and personal swimming pools. 

By presenting documentary photos intermixed with staged fantastic and odd encounters, and the sensation of realism is passed through all the work. Still, you cannot help but double take when encountering the work of Gregory Crewdson who’s Hollywood-like productions result in elaborate staged photographs of bizarre and fantastic events, such as “UT (overturned schoolbus, 2001-02)” incorporating an overturned bus surrounded by small children and manicured lawns. Amy Stein presents shocking reenactments of human encounters with animals based on incident reports in her local newspaper. These encounters illuminate the edge of controlled private space, by showing how it butts up against environments beyond our control. Beyond the Backyard exhibits a diverse range of images depicting how and where we experience leisure time. 

The summer exhibition features over 40 artists from the archives of MoCP and is on view from now through August 23rd (mocp.org). A gallery talk “Changing Spaces, Shaping Places: Exploring our own backyard” will occur Thursday July 10th at 6pm in the Museum galleries (for more information see colum.edu/criticalencounters). For those interested in continuing the exploration of lawn culture, also check out Lawn Nation at the Nature Museum through the end of the summer (naturemuseum.org/lawn).

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