Sunday, March 13, 2011

All the Lonely People, Where Do they all Come From?

Technology has sometimes been heralded as the great savior for frail humanity. The progress of twentieth century science and technology might now enable us to live longer, healthier lives, but is there a price to be paid for this purported immortality? The post-war population explosion of the “boomer” generation loaded increasing numbers of people into the urban centers of the United States. At the same time, isolation seemed to grow exponentially. Even in a bustling metropolis like New York City, people could feel overwhelmed by isolation in the midst of the masses. The earlier model of extended families living together, or at least in close proximity, gave way to a trend of siblings spreading out across the vast continental landscape with aging parents often relegated to cell-like rooms in nursing homes.

Though not curated to point out this predicament, recent exhibitions at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art seem to align in a configuration that questions the state of human relationships in modern times. The Whitney’s collection of Edward Hopper paintings, as represented in the exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, establishes a foundation that might consider the rampant feelings of isolation that were already being acknowledged in the early decades of the twentieth century. Though most Hopper paintings highlight single figures in lonely interiors, even signature works like Nighthawks occasionally present groups of figures separated by their estrangement from one another.

Hopper’s New York Interior exhibits the voyeuristic quality in many of the artist’s works. The viewer observes the evening ritual of a woman undressing before retiring for bed; mending a garment in a state of partial undress. Her mostly bared back suggests an intimacy that does not actually exist. The viewer and the viewed remain strangers who maintain lonely, isolated existences within their separate tenement cubicles. This kind of impersonal connection almost foreshadows some current internet-based relationships.

 In an uncharacteristic monochrome gray composition—Untitled: Solitary Figure in a Theater—Hopper explores the full weight of isolation experienced in an urban environment. The single figure, alone in a theater that can hold dozens, suggests feelings of insignificance that are sometimes produced in the midst of an enormous crowd. All others melt away and the individual is overwhelmed by loneliness. Even the lack of hue denotes this sadness.

The galleries containing Charles LeDray’s exhibition workworkworkworkwork addressed this concept of isolation from another perspective. While there is a great variety within the show, all the pieces are miniscule representations of actual, real-life objects. Miniature tableaux represent groupings of personal affects—materials such as magazines and items from a purse or briefcase are scattered in piles that recall the careless placement of personal materials in an enclosed private location, like on a nightstand.

 These tiny props suggest the activities of a solitary life. Miniature settings—like Mens Suits (2006-2009), which represent what seem to be the interior of a men’s clothing store or a dry cleaner’s—are fabricated from full-sized articles of vintage clothing. They convey the sadness of a life lost. Patterns and fabrics are reminiscent of the clothing given to thrift store after the death of an elderly family member.

The sport coats and ties of lonely, forgotten old men are refashioned to populate a parallel world. The absence of any figures within these diorama-like scenes only underscores the tragic, lonely feeling often associated with the elderly. The stories of the lives connected to these articles of clothing appear to be stunted, shortened, or chopped off. Forgotten.

The most visceral work to approach this topic within the Whitney’s permanent collection is surely Edward Kienholz’s The Wait. Often associated with Pop, Kienholz’s work is sometimes summed up in art history textbooks through a single image of this seminal work. Nonetheless, this multi-dimensional work can never honestly be reduced to a simple frontal photograph. It must be experienced in person to be fully comprehended.

One must move around the work to engage its complex structure. A frontal view reveals a skeletal structure composed of what appear to be cow—or some other large animal—bones. In a photograph, the area of the figure’s head and chest is, however, reduced to a mass of jars with highlights and reflections obscuring their contents. What appears as merely an antique photograph that “represents” the head of the woman in the work is only the most frontal element of that component. Behind that picture is a large glass jar containing a cow skull with life-like glass eyes.

The other jars include memories held close to the heart. Gold painted objects represent elements from childhood, marriage, and long-held faith. However, these golden memories are preserved and frozen in time like the cat, needlework, and photographs and Bible on the end table. All dripping with coats of clear resin that preserve them in this static scene.

The only element of The Wait not frozen in the past is the live parakeet in the birdcage. The droppings left on the end table by the bird may simply be seen as distasteful. They could better be read as an indictment. As a society we have left our elders to corrode in their failing memories. Their lives are prolonged by the advances of pharmaceutical companies as we separate them from the rest of “productive” society.

Few works have ever so forcefully tackled the epidemic of loneliness among the elderly as The Wait. The representation of social topics has a long history in art, but this concept has never been a popular theme. Again, it may be unintentional on the part of the Whitney, yet this configuration of exhibitions is timely. A consideration of the feelings of loneliness and isolation, particularly in difficult economic times, is worthy of artistic and curatorial attention.

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