BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 08 JUN 95
Featured in
Issue 23

Sam Durant

BY Jeffrey Kastner in Reviews | 08 JUN 95

The dream of well-designed Modernist living, although inspired by the Bauhaus in the bleakness of 20s Germany, was perhaps most comprehensively attempted half a world and three decades away in sunny Southern California. The message of the spare and sleek homes that began to populate the sprawling countryside around Los Angeles after World War Two was emotional as much as physical. The rigour and purity of these dream houses gave them appeal as machines designed to promote universal orderly living. Yet they also epitomised the uniquely American extra-urban lifestyle then emerging: a notion of democratised affluence played out on a stage of cool white - a residential simulacrum for the convenient, pacific and upwardly mobile future daydreamed into existence by the developing middle classes.

If now, from the vantage point of that future, such design-driven sociological conceits seem a bit dated, they do provide a means to contrast the grand aspirations of the halcyon American mid-century with the multivalent disappointments of its tottering fin de siècle. In his first New York show, Californian artist Sam Durant commandeered these contradictions in his suite of five Abandoned Houses (1995), deconstructing not only the design programme of the Bauhaus-inspired residences they ape, but, more broadly, the notion of the home and the physical and spiritual security it proposes.

Constructed from foamcore and cardboard (an equivalent to the pre-fabricated building materials utilised in the suburban dwellings which they signify) his table-top maquettes are then subjected to all manner of indignity. With holes knocked in their roofs, their walls caved in or graffiti-covered and their floors dusty with fallen debris, the models look past the point of realisation usually focused on in such objects, jumping ahead to a future of inevitable decline and degradation.

In many ways, that future has already arrived. Facing earthquake, fire, flood and riots, in the last few years LA has lacked only locusts in its attempt to recreate the Top Ten Biblical plagues. Magnifying the resonance of these events is the complicated relationship the American psyche has with the city. As the centre of the nation's film and television industry, Los Angeles has become instantly recognisable through media saturation as the land of milk and honey, and of all that is youthful and forward-looking in the US. Much more than cold, compact New York, warm and expansive Los Angeles signifies America's wish-image of itself. As such, its precipitous decline seems especially loaded; its tragedies broadly emblematic of a certain kind of experiment - involving a vision of a 'new' land and economy, of a distinctly 'modern' kind of family, culture and society - gone awry.

This is Durant's line of investigation, and it obviously places him in a tradition of contemporary SoCal artwork - stretching from Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley through Charles Ray to Jason Rhoades - which probes broad social discomfort through a complex and often black-humoured investigation of the American 'home' as a site of economic, sexual and spiritual deviance. The houses his models parody, designed so carefully for comfortable living, have been damaged by forces beyond even their rigid control; just as the lives they contain were altered by the unpredictable shifts which warped the American dream, reflected in the chrome-laden tail-fins of the 40s and 50s.

Durant's approach is successful despite being stripped down. The only accompaniment to the maquettes are two rather throwaway wall-based elements. One is a welter of simplistically juxtaposed photo-collages and the other a pair of text pieces entitled Utopian Plumbing. For the first half of the latter, Durant has made a deadpan instructional diagram for what to do 'if the toilet is plugged up' by what appears to be a small dump truck. The humour of the second is more subtle and poignant: Durant has created a kind of odd blank verse with mixed-up snippets from architects extolling, in a quasi-religious syntax ripe for parody, the Modernist ideal of building.

'Order is basic, there can be no freedom without it/Chaos comes from uncertainty and indecision, convictions are the prelude to order and unity/We are only too familiar with the frequent ridiculous forms that are reared up as buildings... decked out in nonsensical paraphernalia that is a travesty of all that is noble/If we search hard for truth and clarity then the reason to exist that we all seek will follow soon enough'.

The disconnection between the high-minded ideals of the architects' and Durant's apocalyptic vision provides a metaphor for the inevitable clash between all such noble certainties - whether social, political or aesthetic - and the accelerating vagaries of modern life. It was a serendipitous conceptual closure that the day I saw the show, a small, constantly-running TV included in one of Durant's houses happened to have landed on Rush Limbaugh, whose crude moral certitudes have come to define the contemporary American syndrome of socio-cultural desperation. When the walls have fallen down and all that's left of the building's inhabitants is the echo of Rush and his ilk, Durant's thesis is made perfectly clear: the Dream Home may still be where the heart is, but - in today's world - it's a very different kind of home and a darker heart.