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Welcome to the neighborhood: "American Suburbs" sheds light on the issue of residential development
Welcome to the neighborhood: "American Suburbs" sheds light on the issue of residential development
Melissa Jones

A Fair Way to Present Grass

I was ambivalent about going to an exhibition with the prosaic title "The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life," only to discover a delightfully whimsical, imaginatively assembled show.

The exhibition, now midway through its four-month run at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, is essentially one sprawling installation of items associated, in various ways, with the title subject matter. It hardly sounds exciting, and in less capable hands, the show might have been a major snooze. Are Americans and their lawns really all that fascinating?

Well, yes, it turns out. And maybe it took outsiders -- in this case our neighbors north of the border -- to see the potential here. The show was put together by the Canadian Centre For Architecture in Montreal, and the organizers threw academic high-mindedness and aesthetic decorum out the window, opting instead for a playful approach that slyly acknowledges there's something a bit silly about the whole enterprise of a museum exhibition devoted to yards.


"The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life"

Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-5500.

On display through January 2.

All three of the museum's interlocking first-floor galleries have been set aside for "The American Lawn," with walls strategically repositioned here and there to break up the show. In the foyer leading into the galleries is an introductory "piece," if you can call it that, to set the tone for what's to come: three gleaming lawn mowers, resting atop circular, slowly rotating platforms, each covered with a different shade of green felt.

For those of us who aren't up on our vintage mowers, supplementary information is provided. The oldest machine on display is a 19-inch Snappin from 1954, and next to it is a 19-inch Toro Flymo from 1964. Rounding out the trio is a 1998 "Ariens standard mowing system," according to the ID. Apparently, in the late 1990s, we don't just have lawn mowers, we have mowing systems.

A few feet away, as a sort of footnote, a tiny video monitor suspended from the ceiling plays TV commercials documenting Americans' preoccupation with their mowing equipment. And behind a panel of clear plastic nearby there are more than a dozen pieces of protective gear that look more appropriate for fighting a fire or investigating a biohazard than for working in the yard.

Tidbits of relevant information are posted here and there throughout the show. We learn, for instance, that there are 32 million acres of lawn in North America and that North Americans spend more than $25 billion a year on do-it-yourself lawn and garden care, not to mention $750 million a year on grass alone.

"Common to seats of government, to tract housing, to corporate headquarters, to football fields, to villa and mansion," one panel reads, "the lawn may be seen as the great equalizer and symbol of the American dream of self-reliance and control." Fortunately the exhibition itself is considerably less stuffy than these musings.

The main body of the show is divided into themed sections. In "Idyll and Anxiety," two walls in a dimly lit area are lined with more than a hundred small, softly glowing lightboxes, each containing a photograph of a lawn, from places as varied as Palm Beach; Oyster Bay, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; and Paducah, Kentucky. The pictures are color transparencies, made from glass slides from the '20s and '30s, of yards and gardens belonging to members of the Garden Club of America, and they reinforce one of the show's paradoxical points: that all lawns are alike, even though no two lawns are exactly the same.

For a section ironically called "The Democratic Surface," we're introduced to the 19th-century idea of the lawn as status symbol: the larger the expanse of lawn surrounding your home, the greater your isolation from your less cultivated neighbors, and hence the higher your implied social standing. "These notions," a panel explains, "invested the lawn with moral as well as aesthetic value, so that caring for it was made into a virtue."

Two long cases display books and magazines open to passages relating to lawns. "Does Your Front Lawn Belong to You -- or the Whole Neighborhood?" asks a headline from a 1960 issue of House Beautiful magazine. An 1870 text touts "The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent."

One offbeat section of the show, "Engineering the Lawn," includes a wall of 65 color photographs illustrating an array of diseased lawns, along with a couple of enlargements of microscopic views of some of the organisms that attack grass. On the opposite wall are 15 elaborately framed patents for varieties of grasses, complete with documentation of what makes these grasses patent-worthy. And between is a metal frame contraption that features samples of 11 kinds of artificial turf on one side, 11 kinds of real grass on the other, along with an illuminated electronic crawl that describes the characteristics of the various real grasses.

For "The Competitive Lawn," several sets of large photographs are juxtaposed with a display case filled with nearly three dozen kinds of cleated sports shoes from past and present, shown cleat side up. Photographer Jim Dow contributes a trio of photo triptyches of sports stadiums, and Alex MacLean weighs in with a series of aerial photographs of outdoor sports facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Minnesota.

The most striking images in this section are the works of Texas-born photographer Skeet McAnley. His The Desert Mountain Club, Geronimo Course 13th Tee, Scottsdale, Arizona, is pretty much what the generic title describes. But the title of Ventana Canyon, Tucson, Mountain Course, Third Green only hints at McAnley's surreal composition, in which a small golf green is so discreetly tucked away among the sharp, steep hills, chunky boulders, and towering cacti of a desert landscape that it all but disappears. And with Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School Near Goulding, Utah, he hits upon an even more haunting combination: an empty football field set against the magnificent rock formations of Monument Valley.

But the show's organizers have outdone themselves with two sections that are notable not so much for their content as for the way it's presented. "American Suburbs" is a room-size installation with nine components, equally spaced and similarly constructed. Each consists of a small elevated platform on which sits a scale model of a neighborhood from a different era of American history from the mid-1800s through the late 1990s, with a typical house and its surrounding lawn highlighted to contrast the varying amounts of space taken up at different points in time.

The elevated platforms are connected to slightly larger lightboxes on the floor, which display infrared aerial photographs of suburbs corresponding to the model neighborhoods, shot from altitudes ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 feet by the U.S. Geological Survey. Finally each of the nine components that make up the "piece" is connected to its own electrical outlet in the ceiling via a long cord, giving the whole installation the air of something out of a science fiction film.

An adjacent space features an equally inspired setup. "Neighbors" displays nearly two dozen stereoscopic transparencies by the young New York photographer Robert Sansone that focus on the dividing lines between neighboring lawns to comment obliquely on the territorial attitude people take toward their yards.

But again the photos themselves aren't as exceptional as the way they're presented. The transparencies are enclosed in stereoscopic goggles, and in order to view them, you have to adjust the goggles by moving them up or down along sets of wires and pulleys that run from the ceiling to the floor along all four walls. Even the empty space in the middle of the installation is put to use: a projector mounted in the ceiling projects slides from a legal case, referred to as "Violation of Lawn Sign Ordinance," onto the floor.

What, you may well ask, does all this have to do with art? I'm not quite sure, and perhaps it doesn't really matter. All I know is that I wandered through "The American Lawn" like a kid in some sort of deranged amusement park, and I left with a big smile on my face. For this show it's best to check your aesthetic preconceptions at the door and just have fun.


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