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When you push a lawn mower across the grass on a crisp Saturday morning, perhaps all you're thinking about is keeping the homeowners' association off your back. But no. Your action is positively loaded with symbolism.
"When I approach America's obsessive quest for the perfect lawn," says artist Don Lambert, "these are the places I am coming from: fruitless labor, endless occupation, orchestrated spectacle. Imaginings of power and control."
Whereas some artists work with clay and others with paint, Lambert's medium is artificial turf. His works are investigations into the origins of the American lawn, its aesthetics, and how we relate to and interact with these constructed landscapes. Several works draw on the artist's interactions with "lawns of personal significance" throughout his life.
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"It started with my own experience with the suburban lawn, but then it branched out through research," Lambert said. Several of his "plat" pieces, which are scaled-down artificial-turf cutouts of surveyed land, rolled up, hung from the walls, or otherwise distorted, serve as a sort of homage to memory — i.e., moments of teenaged delinquency driving through and tearing up the perfectly manicured lawns of his suburban hometown.
Lambert was partly inspired by "borrowed scenery" — the East Asian design principle of incorporating background landscape into the composition of a garden. The idea became popular during the 16th Century, when the Japanese desire to hone a national identity separate from China translated into ostentatious displays of personal wealth. After returning from their travels, aristocratic elite would enlist the labor of hundreds of workers to re-create the foreign sceneries they'd seen into the landscapes of their homes.
While themes of power, class hierarchy, and sociopolitical relationships come to mind in exploring "Lawn Jobs" through this lens, the notion of borrowed scenery also helps shed light on the more subtle, personal themes behind the works — an inherent desire to capture and hold onto memory in these physical manifestations.
One series of works in Lambert's exhibition — large, geometric constructions of artificial turf on plywood — plays on the elaborate, symmetrical designs of the gardens of Versailles, emphasizing the baroque ideals of rationalism, order, and human agency. Take, for instance, the piece called Trefoil: Swerve, Slalom, Brake Rainbow. For Louis, Who Likes to Be Called Sun. This takes up the center of the main wall facing the entrance of the gallery space. It consists of three wedges that together make a modular curve marked by a repeating pattern of stripes. Although the piece is beautiful for its elegance and geometric simplicity, it's also a strong reference to the centuries-old tradition — apparent as ever in today's clipped, hedged, and weed-free American lawns — of demonstrating human power and dominance through the manipulation of the natural world.
"It all looks very formal; it all looks really safe," Lambert says of the designs, but behind the calculated beauty is an obsessive need to conquer, contain, and control.
In contrast to the clean lines and geometric simplicity across the works in the exhibit, implicit in the show's title — a slang term for driving a car through someone's lawn — is the idea of subversion, of tearing up and marking out new territories. This idea is reflected in the placement of three site-specific boulders across the gallery floor. The huge, moss- and dirt-covered rocks (carefully maintained by the center's interns, who regularly mist them with water) were extracted from and dredged across the front lawn of the Art & Culture Center, leaving violent carvings in the earth and parking lot and bringing the organic smell of life into the otherwise clean, antiseptic environment of the indoor gallery.
On view in conjunction with "Lawn Jobs" is a site-specific interactive installation by South Florida native Brandon Opalka and a collection of newer paintings and sculptural collages by Miami-based artist Jenny Brillhart. These round out and give dimension to Lambert's show in the main gallery.
"Borrowing scenery" in another sense, Opalka's "Janigans" is modeled after the well-known South Florida pub chain Flanigan's, renamed for his mother, Jan — complete with flat-screen TVs playing old horseraces and hunting programs, a giant wall-mounted papier-mâché shark, and tables and benches where visitors can sit to take it all in. The "Janigans Art Bar and Grill" even features its own restroom with a ceramic sink and urinal.
The room is dimly lit by red and blue neon lights and is packed with memorabilia collected from the artist's childhood growing up in South Florida. Photographs, trophies, sporting equipment, books, and newspaper clippings are all thrown together, along with cases of booze, to create an eerie, poignant sense of a culture and community encapsulated from memory and frozen in time.
"It's personal," explains Art & Culture Center curator Jane Hart. "But it also captures a certain kind of essence of an aspect of life down here — of family, of community, of coming of age, of passage of time from one generation to the next."
While "Lawn Jobs" fixates on symmetry and perfection, "Janigans" creates the opposite experience, bombarding the viewer with a sensory overload of informal and unexpected materials slapped together to form a space that is somehow bizarre and alien while wonderful and inviting.